Monday, March 14, 2011

Coffee, Tea and Nairobi

Friday morning, the team decided to take in a little local color before work by going to one of the many ubiqutous coffee plantations in the area. At least, that was the intention. The Postal team had made a very good friend and number one fan in the local postmaster and he hooked us up with a guide and an entre. The hitch was that we when we showed up, we were met with a non-coffee, non-plantation destination. It was a tea factory. We went through and saw the tea leaf delivery, the withering, macerating, drying, crushing, and sifting machines.  Then we advanced to the tasting room, where about 10 different pots were brewing, and Francesco took the lead, swirling and spitting as one might at a wine tasting. Remarkable how many different styles (their relative value apparently changes with the desires of the market) can come from just one batch of leaves.
Vast bins of drying tea leaves
I <3 Conveyor Belts
Tea varieties all from the same batch of leaves

Francesco hard at work

Not to be deterred, we inquired after a subsequent coffee visit, which was happily granted. After a 5 minute drive that took 35 minutes, we arrived at yet another factory, this one devoted to coffee. The smell of freshly roasted beans was ambient from the moment we got out of the car, though there is no industrial roasting at this particular plant, just enough for quality control and tasting. We went through the demonstration groves, where the agronomists at the coffee mill show the farmers optimal practices for maximizing the quality and yield of their plants. Apparently, one the farmer delivers the beans, there's very little that the mill itself can do to increase the quality of the resulting coffee... much of it is determined at the plant itself. Steve, the British intern showing us around the plant, was quite accommodating of all of our questions and most importantly arranged for a fresh cup of joe for all of us - and by fresh I mean beans that were roasted one floor below, having been beans on the tree mere weeks before. As you might imagine, it was delicious.

This whole process turned from a quick one hour jaunt into a 3.5 hour morning event, which stressed out some of my teammates, as they had a trip planned to Lake Nakuru for the weekend. I was on a little bit more relaxed schedule to head to Nairobi, since I was planning to take a matatu. I don't recall to what degree I've covered matatus thus far, but they are small Nissan minibuses that are the most common form of inter-city transportation in Kenya. Picture five rows of three seats with a steering wheel in the front, inside an interior the size of a Honda Odyssey. Foreigners typically shun them, and for some good reasons... up until recently, matatus were completely unregulated. Speeds were unlimited, as were numbers of passengers which could number above 20. Fatal accidents were common. Drivers were either unlicensed, stoned or both. Vehicles were unguided road missiles, and held to no mechanical standard. After accidents, drivers would typically abandon their junk heap vehicle and just run for it. These practices have been largely reformed now with police constantly pulling over matatus to check the licensing and state of the driver, ensure that insurance and inspection are up to date, check the number of passengers, but the stigma still remains.
Matatus are cheap. By comparison, a private taxi from Nyeri to Nairobi is about 7500 Ksh one way, or about 85-90 dollars. A matatu ride from Nyeri to Nairobi is 250 Ksh, just under 3 bucks. Yeah. So my colleague Francesco walked me down to the matatu stop, I bought my ticket, he snapped a photo of me in the matatu as my last will and testament, and waved goodbye. I sat in the "jump seat" by the sliding door, which avoided the "death seat" next to the matatu driver. The only downside with a matatu is that they leave when they are full, which in my case took about a half an hour. In that half hours time, you are a captive audience and a sitting duck for every two bit vendor with any wares to ply. Fruit, drinks, cookies, samosas, candies, phonics books, calendars, combs, grilled meats of unclear origin, religious texts, and padlocks, all circling the lot full of vans, shouting and looking to swoop down on any flash of cash since they're largely selling the same stuff. My van finally filled (with 17 passengers instead of 15 if you count the two kids unbelted in their parents laps), and we pulled off onto the highway. The "African Massage" was in full force, but honestly once you have accustomed yourself to the white-knuckle, breath-catching panic of passing by swerving into the oncoming lane on a well-trafficked highway, there's really very little incremental terror doing it in a matatu versus a taxi - only that your heirs will have less to inherit in the latter case.
I made some small talk with my sleepy matatu-mates who were pleasant if not particularly conversational. When we made a brief stop to drop someone on the outskirts of Nairobi, I hopped out to make room for the exiting passenger and was immediately approached by an aggressive panhandler who quickly became abusive when I refused him. My fellow passenger leaped to my defense, pouring calumny on him in Swahili until he backed away, flipping all of us off in the process. Matatu Solidarity!
I made it to downtown Nairobi unscathed and in enough time to make it to my modest accommodations, shower and head over to the synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat. Many of the folks I met the first time were not around, which made it difficult to gain entry past the synagogue security guards, but fortunately, I spied a former head of the shul, "Veitzman" (first name, yes, you may be Israeli if your first name is Veitzman) who granted me access. I quickly discovered why things were particularly buckled down as my entry was immediately followed by the arrival of 4 black sedans and a chase car with siren blaring. Out walked a gaggle of obvious Israeli security goons, the Israeli Ambassador Yaacov Keidar (who is a regular attendee there) and the Israeli Minister of Internal Security Yitzchak Aharonovich, who was in Kenya for official meetings. Davening proceeded with the normal hodgepodge of tunes and styles, with some of the regular mizrachi mix taking jabs at the bitachon crew for not singing along.
The next morning we were not only without a minister, but also without a minyan. We davened mostly from our seats, and I was glad to be able to help out at least a little bit, leyning most of the parasha from a chumash. I should mention that we were lacking a white minyan, which is to say that there were sufficient African Kenyans present to make a minyan, but despite the fact that many of them have been coming to shul there for two decades, or in the case of the younger kids their entire lives, none of them have been put in touch with any sort of conversion process. Certain shul members have definite opinions on why this has been the case but I'm not going to get into shul politics by blog.
After davening, I ran into David and Michael, two East Africa trekkers - one from Australia, the other a GWU graduate who just finished his service in the Israeli Army. Since my plan for the afternoon was already wander-lunch-nap-wander, I amended it to wander with friends-lunch-nap-wander, and enjoyed trading stories of Kenya.
Saturday night, we were all invited to join a lecture that the visiting Minister was giving at the social hall in the shul. I was happy that my Hebrew has not atrophied so badly that I couldn't keep up, as the Minister addressed topics as varied as Iran, fire-fighting, the Itamar Massacre, Gilad Shalit, mafia protection rackets, the various Middle East revolutions in progress, Hamas, Hizbollah, electoral realignments, "broken window" theory and others. It got heated at one point, when someone asked about the recent settler evictions, and the minister simply replied "Ani lo rotzeh l'daber al zeh." (I don't want to talk about that.) It was a good talk, though I think I probably could have given it. Not to be conceited, but I've got the process on being an Israeli minister pretty much down pat. (apologies to the non-Hebrew speakers for the Hebrew, apologies to the Hebrew speakers for the poor Hebrew transliteration).

Audience member: Kvod haSar, mah ata choshev al <noseh>?
Sar: Tishma, <noseh> zeh lo davar pashut. Zeh inyan m'od me'urkav, v'm'od matrid. Yesh beYisrael achshav vikuach tziburi al <noseh>, v'kamuvan yesh vikuach gam b'memshala. Anachu ovdim achshav al <noseh> v'nireh ba'yamim v'chodashim hakrovim mah ha-tozaot.

Try it yourself, you too can be an Israeli minister! Use Syria, tunnel smuggling, prostate cancer, Idan Raichel, Krembo, you name it. All you need now is a few hundred thousand votes and you're good to go.

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