First Impressions of Nairobi

Written by 
Nairobi sky line Nairobi sky line Emily E. McGee

My most overwhelming first impressions of Nairobi are centered on the smells. As my friend Julie pointed out to me, the U.S. is so sterile. People wear deodorant; we clean ourselves, our clothes, and our homes obsessively. Our trash is stored in dumpsters and cans and taken far away to decompose. My husband puts it like this, "At home, I never smell anything, and here I can smell all sorts of stuff." Touche.

Life is smelly here. You can see black car exhaust escaping from the tail pipes of buses. You can obviously smell it too, along with the trash that someone around the corner is burning. The sidewalks collapse into knee-deep gutters, where food wrappers and grass cuttings float in greasy rain water. A short walk leaves my nose running and my throat scratchy.

Body odor is a prevailing scent on the sidewalk and in stores. It's not gross, but it is strange to someone not used to smelling other people. I can see why people are sweating; it's warmer and more humid here than I expected. And I guess it makes me feel less conscious about my own sweating.

The grocery store smells like a cat died behind the milk section and no one did anything about it. Needless to say, we haven't bought any milk yet, although the smell permeates the entire store. The grocery store scents have migrated back to our house with our groceries. Apparently Kenyans like their fruit extra sweet, which means extra ripe. The area around our fruit bowl has that sickeningly sweet smell of fruit on the edge of rotting. Other groceries have left a lasting impression too. We didn't realize that a jar of hot sauce we had bought had started to ferment. When my husband opened it, it released a potent hot pepper gas that left us coughing, and laughing.

I have always thought that music conjures up my most vivid travel memories, but now I wonder if smells are just as powerful. What do you think?

Emily E. McGee

Emily E. McGee has always loved to write, but she just got around to making a career out of it. Starting early as a voracious reader, she devoured any text she could get her hands on. From journalism to African literature to teaching, her formal education has always focused on the written word. Along the way she picked up a degree or two and moved to Africa, the South Pacific, and three states in four years. She pays the bills by writing for various educational companies, but she's happiest when writing about travel.


Emily and her husband live life on the go, and they are currently living in Nairobi, Kenya. Emily writes about the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of life as a trailing spouse at One Trailing Spouse.



0 # Emily E. McGee 2012-06-20 14:45
@Jared- I totally agree. Moving somewhere new can really overwhelm you on many levels.

I've gotten used to the outside smells, but the grocery store is still...a bit too pungent for me.
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0 # Jared 2012-06-20 07:17
Great article I think its a guessing game most times of which sense will get shocked or stimulated first. Did you ever get used to it?
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0 # Emily E. McGee 2012-06-13 10:47
So true, first impression articles can really give some great insight into a new place. I would love to read about some of your first impressions of new places-- I'll start looking for them here at The Holidaze.
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0 # Derek Freal 2012-06-12 16:46
Hahaha great article Emily! So descriptive that I can almost imagine I'm there lol ;)

I'm a huge fan of doing a "first impressions" article mere mins after arriving in a new country. While your experiences exploring that country will forever shape and determine your overall opinion, you'll never again be able to have that same level of candor as you did when you first stepped off the plane and realized what you had gotten yourself into. That to me is priceless.

Oh and I think our sense of smell might be the best, at least in terms of associating memories. It most definitely is for me ;)
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