Foodie Friday- Tamarind Juice

A taste of East Africa isn’t complete without tamarind juice. Endemic to tropical African zones, such as the swahili coast, tamarind is the pod-like fruit of a bushy dense tree, that frankly looks completely unappetizing to eat. Fortunately, tamarinds are pressed into juice so you don’t have to look at it to enjoy its flavor.

We first enjoyed tamarind juice in Lamu and couldn’t decide what it was. The flavor was something akin to a tart iced tea and we thought perhaps it was a pre-made mix. It was both sweet and sour. Over the next few days we were served it again and again and finally discovered that it wasn’t a mix at all, but the crushed pulpy juice of this rather exotic fruit.

Not to sound like a broken record, but tamarind is actually found all over southeast Asia and you guess it – was centuries ago traded by Indian Ocean traders. Unlike the chapati or so many other things we’ve found in East Africa, tamarind is actually endemic to Africa! Finally something truly African.

Although the taste is sweet and sour, which is sort of unique in a drink, the fruit is actually very high in nutrients, including calcium. Watch out if you want to enjoy it though, tamarind pulp is considered a natural laxative, something that I think most travelers are most certainly not looking for!

The Worst Road in Africa

After waiting nearly a week we finally had our Ethiopian visas in hand and began the trip north to the border. The first few hours, going around Mt. Kenya are normal roads….with pavement. The next 300 miles or so, taking us back into the northern hemisphere (we’ve now crossed the equator 7 times in the past month) was another story.

IMGP1191Generally independent travelers like us have a few options on this path: 1) the dusty, dirty, once a week bus that runs to the border straight without breaks and usually has delays of around 12 hours or 2) the cattle truck, where upgrading to sit in the cab with the driver and his 10 best paying customers is half of what the bus costs. Did I mention its almost 300 miles and two days on this road? Weighing these two options, we considered flying to Addis Ababa.

Ultimately we were saved from the arduous journey by friends of ours.  Now that we’ve survived a safari together, and almost been arrested together, the journey north couldn’t be too bad! Now that we didn’t need to worry about falling out of the cattle truck or suffocating from the smells of the most awful bus on Africa’s “most awful” road, we had only the bandits to be concerned with….ya’know, the ones who shoot at cars and trucks and all of that. :) (no, I’m not joking)

In the end no bandits shot at us, but we did have to contend with a few spitting camels and some herdsmen. Local people, decorated in full beaded headdresses and feathers made interesting companions at the Marsabit Internet cafe. The road was long,dusty and in terrible condition, but we made it through and arrived without any major problems at the Ethiopian border.

Foodie Friday- Abdalla’s Coconut Fish Curry

After raving about Lamu at the beginning of this week we figured you might be in the mood for some swahili food. Lucky for you, we wrote down Abdalla’s Coconut Fish Curry recipe, which should delight your taste buds and put you in an island mood.


1 kg fish (we used red snapper)
1/4kg tomatoes
1 large onion
1 cup coconut puree
1 large bell pepper
2 large carrots
2-3 cloves of garlic to taste
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 c cooking oil


Boil fish and remove the bones.  Cut vegetables as desired.  Heat cooking oil and sauté: onions, pepper, carrots, tomatoes.  Add fish just before the vegetables are finished, stir mixture for three minutes.  Slowly add coconut milk and salt.  Simmer for five minutes.  (Additional salt can be added to taste at this point).  Keep at low heat, covered until ready to serve.  Best served with rice.

Corruption & Bribery…are we going to jail?

We’ve heard awful stories about corruption and bribery since we crossed the border last year. Dire warnings from guidebooks and other travelers generally give the impression that officials are out to get you in every country. That hasn’t been our experience, but we have met a few bad apples.

Driving down a main street in Nairobi after dark, we were in the backseat of our friend’s Land Rover when we hit a police check point. Police check points are common throughout Africa, you may remember our last experience at one in Zimbabwe.

Motioning us to pull over, we maneuvered the SUV onto the dirt shoulder next to the police officer. Smiling at us, the officer inquired as to our destination, how long we had been in Kenya and for the driver’s license. All normal requests. Then he requested that we take the sunshade off the back window so he could “see everyone in the car better.”

Immediately he asked Danny and I to get out of the vehicle. Unsure what was going on, we asked if there was a problem. “You didn’t have your seat belts on in the backseat,” he told us. “This is a big problem.” Protesting as we got out of the car, we weren’t sure if he was serious or if he was looking for a bribe.

Soon enough it was clear. “You must pay a charge of 5000 shillings,” he said once Danny and I were safely back in the car. Immediately we started to protest and declared that we did not have that kind of money on us. “Then you will go to the police station, either in this car or the two in the backseat can get out and I will call for mobile transport,” he said expecting us to protest further. Instead, we agreed to go to the police station if necessary, but pointed out that we would not have the 5000 shillings there either. Confused by our acceptance to go to the police station, the officer stumbled and fell back on his original line- 5000 shillings. Denying again that sort of cash, we asked what our options were, since he refused to tell us the location of the police station. It was clear he was looking for a bribe, but unclear what exactly he wanted, since there was no way we were paying him 5000 shillings.

One of the vehicle’s owners, in the passenger seat, reached around back and produced a nice bottle of wine. Placing it in his lap, he asked the officer again what our options were. Looking at us, Danny again reiterated that we’d be happy to go to the police station, this time adding that we’d call our embassy upon arrival. Taking a step back from the car, the officer didn’t know what to do. Reiterating that we had no money, just a bottle of wine, our friend asked the officer again what we could do, noting that we were in his custody at this point until the situation was resolved. Clearly uncomfortable that we used the words custody and embassy, the officer quickly noted that we were not in his custody despite the fact we couldn’t leave.

Finally, turning off the car and interior lights, our friends look at the officer patiently waiting for him to declare a resolution. Reaching into the car for the bottle of wine, the officer noted that he would give it to his brother, on principle. The second officer, who walked up in the middle of the whole thing chuckled at Danny and reminded us again, that it had only been a small issue, nothing very big at all. Walking away, they set us free to go.

This is not a story meant to imply that corruption is rampant in Africa or that all police officers want bribes, far from it. We have not been in Africa long enough to know what is the norm and although we’ve heard countless stories similar to the situation we just described, it would be unfair to make any sort of judgement. Most of our experiences here with government officials has been pleasant and professional. A phrase we have learned and use regularly pretty much sums it all up- this is Africa and this is just sometimes how it goes.

Nairobi: A small series of unfortunate events….

After too few days in Lamu, we returned to Nairobi to drop Nikki off for her return to the US. Nairobi is the opposite of Lamu. Loud, chaotic and cosmopolitan we were immediately caught in the middle of the biggest city in East Africa. Awful traffic, drizzling weather and finding a place to stay well after dark, our initial impressions of Nairobi were awful. Nairobbery it’s often called, and on that first night we were on guard against everyone and everything.

Things are always better the next morning, especially in a city where there’s the opportunity for some retail therapy. You may remember in Zimbabwe we purchased some beautiful stone sculptures. Shipping them home, we were devastated to find out that not only had they broken but in fact they were “pulverized.” Unable to console ourselves, we’ve made it our mission to figure out how to get back to Zimbabwe on this trip and purchase more- suggestions are always welcome! In the mean time, we’ve looked for similar art everywhere and although it’s mostly copycat stuff made from soapstone here in East Africa, we took a chance and headed to the City Market in Nairobi to have a look around.

If you hate hard bargaining, stay away from this place. Seriously. It was a nightmare of pushy salesmen, vendors and hawkers who not only shouted at you, but also tried to physically pull you into their stores. Prices started at nearly 10 times a reasonable price and after just an hour we could hardly stand it anymore. Fortunately a year of practice has given us the ability to sniff out a fair deal and a genuine tradesman, so although it was a harrowing experience, we came out loaded with crafts, paintings and even a stone sculpture or two. Thankfully we had a very willing courier and a very large plastic duffel bag to transport everything safely home.

Feeling better about Nairobi and a series of small unfortunate events that have been plaguing us the last few weeks, we put Nikki on her plane and returned to the city. Only to find our room key missing. Astonishingly, this is the first time in more than a year of travel that we’ve lost a room key. Unable to find a working spare, we spent the night in another room and waiting to break in until the morning. The hostel people were wonderful about the key, and had a working spare made for us so we didn’t have to destroy anything to get to our toothbrushes. Twenty minutes later we realized that we had made a costly mistake in our travel planning- Ethiopia does not give visas at its land borders. Gathering our passports, we rushed to the Ethiopian embassy to try and get our visas processed before the weekend. Of course, they were closed for an extended weekend…until Tuesday which meant we’d have to wait at least five more days in Nairobbery.

It seems as though everyone comes through Nairobi, so although we were stuck for five days waiting for the embassy to open, we had plans nearly every day with other travelers, ex-pats, friends of friends and colleagues who happened to be in Nairobi the same time. It’s weird to realize that we’re nearly half way around the world and we know a bevy of people here. On top of that we have half decent internet here for the first time since leaving a continent with the word “America” in it and have enjoyed walking around town a bit.

The manager of the hostel we’re at told Danny that he’s been here for 23 years and that 10 years ago travelers like us were mugged on a daily basis. Now however, he hasn’t had a single mugging amongst his clientèle in the last 8 years. Maybe Nairobi is getting better after all.