August 2010


It’s been a fun summer for me and one where I got to check some items off my list and made progress on some other goals.

Sunset over Parkishon, Kenya

Sunset over Parkishon, Kenya

Last month, my visit to Kenya achieved a number of goals. One was to haggle in a market. Another was doing volunteer work overseas with my church and Food for the Hungry. And since it was my first visit to Africa, I’m one continent closer to visiting all seven.

In June, my sister and I took on a ropes and zipline course in St. Maartan, thus achieving my goal of riding on a zipline.

In April, a friend invited me up to Chicago for a long weekend (a slightly-belated trip report will be coming soon). I got to see the Bean (goal #12) and added another state to my list. Unfortunately, NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” was taping out of town that week, so I have an excuse to visit the fantastic Windy City again soon.

So as of right now, I’ve done 18 items on my list. I’m still working on my fall plans where I hope to visit a couple of more states and do some of the other items on my list. I may also tweak the list a bit for this blog’s 2nd anniversary in October. The point of the list is so that I can push myself to try new things, go to new places and inspire others to do the same. Not all the items on the list achieve that, so I’d like to do some editing on it.

All in all, it’s been a fun adventure working through this list and I can’t wait to do more items on it.

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One of the goals on my life list is to haggle in a market. The reason I wanted to do this is because, quite frankly, it’s something I was nervous about doing. The idea of walking up to a stranger in their store, looking at their goods and then try to come up with a price where I’m not getting ripped off puts me out of my comfort zone. And since an adventure often involves doing things I’m not used to doing, it went on my list.

On my last day in Nairobi, the team and I went to visit an arts and crafts market located in the heart of downtown. The market took

Downtown Nairobi

Downtown Nairobi

up an entire city block and had dozens of artisans selling everything from jewelry to clothes to wedding knots and doorstops. I’ve been to a lot of arts and craft markets but the one in Narobi had some of the most beautiful items I’ve seen anywhere.

Our guide warned us that since we were all of Caucasian or Hispanic descent our light skin might as well be covered in dollar signs. She also warned us about brokers who would be happy to haggle on our behalf but would charge excessively high prices in return.

As soon as we got out of the van outside of the gate to the market, brokers swarmed us and started asking questions like where we were from and what kinds of items we were looking for. Inside the market, artists had their goods spread out on blankets on the ground with narrow walkways between them. Between the narrow walkways, the brokers and all the shoppers it was a bit overwhelming at first.

The brokers kept asking me questions like what country I was from, what I was looking for, and how much I paid for the flower beaded necklace I was wearing. They seem disappointed when I told them it was a gift from the Samburu people.

Since this was my first attempt at haggling, I decided to start small. I spotted a couple of key chains in the shape of a beaded elephant. I knelt down by the blanket and got the seller’s attention.

“How much?”
“100 shillings.” (at the time, 80 shillings equaled 1 US dollar)
“I’ll give you 100 for 2.”
“No, 150.”
“125”
“140”
“130”
“Deal.”

And with that, my first foray into haggling was done. It wasn’t difficult to do, the seller was in no way offended by my offers and at the

Goodies from the Nairobi market

Goodies from the Nairobi market

end we both got a deal we were happy with. So I kept shopping and haggling for about another hour. For the most part, the haggling went well.

But on two occasions, I ended up walking away from a deal. One was when I ended up talking to a broker but didn’t realize at first. I was interested in a small decorated bowl but suspected that the guy talking to me wasn’t the owner since he wasn’t near the stall at first. Even when I asked him if he was the stall owner, he said he was. But once he asked me to write my bid down on a piece of paper, I knew something was up. And when he quoted a price that was more then six times what I actually ended up paying, I was done with him.  Another time, a seller was trying to work through a broker to deal with me. I got so fed up with trying to deal with both of them that I walked off. But in both situations, there were no repercussions for breaking off a deal. In fact, it made other sellers more eager to deal with me.

At the risk of sounding biased, I found the women much easier to deal with then the men. It may be because that the women in general are less aggressive then the men are. In fact, all the time I walked out of a deal it was with men. Most women let me look at their goods without pressuring me too much to buy.

One interesting twist on haggling happened when some of the sellers took an interest in a Sharpie pen that one of my team members had. It was just an ordinary pen by US standards, but in Kenya that type of pen was either not sold there or hard to find. So my friend ended up trading his pen for a small carved elephant. Another member ended up doing a cash and items trade for a drum. If any team member happened to be carrying items from the US, many vendors wanted to trade for them. It added an interesting twist to the haggling process.

At the end of the market trip, I’m glad I haggled. I enjoyed dealing directly with the people who made the items. I never felt like I got a bad deal, and if I didn’t like the way things were going, I could just walk away. It’s a fun way to do business. Now I feel much more confident in handling any kind of haggling situation, whether it’s halfway around the world or right in my hometown.

When I went to Kenya last month, I expected the unexpected. And Kenya did not disappoint me. Here’s 9 things that I didn’t expect to

Open wide!

see there.

9. The Weather- When I think of Africa, I tend to think of large stretches of desert or open savanna and I imagine that the weather is dry and hot. Kenya had a lot of savannas, but the temperatures ranged from a dry pleasant mid-70s in the daytime to cool 60-degree temps at night. This despite being almost right on the equator. I was there during the dry season and got to experience a dust/rainstorm as it blew in over the savanna. The dust cause people to head for cover, the cooking ladies to cover their pots and dust clouds to blot out the stars. It’s not like any storm I’ve seen in the states. It could be seen coming from miles away, but blew in quietly.

8. Big Animals- Well, okay, I knew Kenya had large animals like elephants wandering around. But I assumed I would need to go on safari to see them. But out in the country, some teammates and I encountered wild elephants crossing the road. Near the Nairobi airport, there’s giraffes that can be seen in an open field next to the airport. Plus the national park offers some animal-viewing opportunities without having to go on a full-blown safari.

7. The Roads- For starters, Kenyans drive on the left side of the road instead of the right. But it’s the condition of the roads that’s the

Samburu mothers

Samburu mothers singing in Parkishon

surprising part. In the rural areas, roads are unpaved and often have large rocks and ruts in them. Trying to traverse them in anything less rugged then a Land Rover is asking for trouble. Out in the country, it’s also common to have to slow down to get around herds of cattle. In the city, roundabouts rule. Not many stoplights or other traffic direction devices exist and it’s a bit of “every man for himself” at times. Driving is not for the faint of heart here.

6. The Walls- In Nairobi, nearly every building had walls surrounding it. Whether it was an apartment complex, a hotel, a mall, a hospital or almost anything else except a gas station, they all had walls. The walls were usually made of either concrete or metal and topped off with barbed wire or shards of glass designed to scratch up any daring intruder. I don’t know what the reason is for such security, but I’ve never seen so many high walls everywhere.

5. Security Guards- With so many walls come lots of security guards. Since all the walled complexes needed gates for people and cars

Elephant Crossing

Elephants crossing the road between Parkishon and Karare

to get in and out of, nearly all of them had at least one guard at the gate. Some larger complexes have several guards, some who tote around AK-47s or other weaponry. Sure, other countries have guards too but they are usually a little more discreet.

4. The Gate-Raisers- In some places, a gate arm needs to be raised to let cars into a parking lot or road. In the US, gate arms are automated. But in Kenya, most gates have a guy standing there to pull the arm up. They usually don’t do anything else then that since a second person will collect parking fees, check cars, etc. All they do is raise and lower the gate. Apparently it’s cheaper to hire someone then to put the automation technology in. It’s certainly one way to keep the Kenyan employment rate up.

3. Clotheslines- In most apartment complexes and condos around the city long, colorful clotheslines with the day’s wash can be seen hanging off of balconies and windows. Washer/dryer units are not a common feature in most homes, so clotheslines are used instead. It’s an interesting way to see the different standards of living between Kenya and the US.

2. Singing- Out in the rural areas of Kenya it’s common to sing while doing tasks like cooking or cleaning. But what really surprised

Kids in Karare

Kids in Karare

me is how long people could sing. I went to church on Sunday in a small village called Parkishon. The children were already singing when I got there, and they kept singing non-stop for well over two hours. And they seemed to enjoy every chorus of every song they sang. It was so beautiful to listen to.

1. The Generous People- I met a lot of wonderful people while I was in Kenya. But what astonished me was how generous the Kenyans were to me and the rest of the team I was with. The women of the church that we visited gave everyone a beaded necklace. Which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that it takes nearly a week’s income to be able to buy the supplies to make just one. Then at the end of the week, the villagers slaughtered a goat in our honor. It’s the highest honor that a village can give to a guest, and it’s significant since it means a villager gave up a piece of his property for us. On our last night in Karare some girls walked through the area we were staying in. Some of the other women and I struck up a conversation with them and we had a nice chat for half an hour or so. They then said they would stop by in the morning before we left to say goodbye. Sure enough, they returned and brought us more necklaces. Incredible, considering that we did nothing for them except talk.

I like to think that I’m a generous and hospitable person, but I have a thing or two to learn from the Kenyans.