masai market nairobi

Random Thoughts on East Africa

Three weeks ago I went on a journey to East Africa to share my knowledge and experiences around urban farming. Over that time, I learned a lot, saw a number of great farming examples, and met lots of great people. Another blog post will focus on the official part of the exchange; this post will feature some of my random thoughts and notes on the culture, food, and other interesting aspects.

One of the first things I noticed was the traffic. Driving in both Kenya and Uganda would be considered chaotic by North American standards, with traffic lights (if there are any) routinely ignored, jaywalking as the only way to cross the street, and cars driving literally bumper to bumper. Add to that the many diesel fumes, dusty roads, large pot holes and large speed bumps, and you’ve got a recipe for chaotic traffic.

Matatus were another interesting part of my Nairobi and East Africa experience. Here, there are central bus stops and loading areas, but it is much more flexible and adaptive than I originally thought. For example, it seems like you can flag down a Matatu if you are walking along one of their routes, and the cost of your ride is partially determined by a tout at the main loading area, the current traffic conditions, and the supply and demand of the passengers and vehicles. When you’re inside, space is very limited, many vehicles feature disco style lights as well as music I can only describe as gaudy.

Food was another interesting part of the experience. For the most part, we ate local Kenyan food, with the staples consisting of rice, chapatti, ugali, beans, and potatoes. Kale is the most popular green and it is usually stir fried, with corn also very popular and mixed with the other staple foods. For meat, the most common meat is chicken. Beef and pork are less common, but can be found. Interestingly, you can also find rabbit meat (we had a whole workshop and a few experts on raising rabbits as part of our exchange), and zebra meat can also be found at a specialty restaurant aptly called Carnivore.

Speaking of food, my favourite meal of my Kenyan trip was to a hole in the wall pork shop. The front of the store served as a butchery, where you can go and order raw cuts of pork. In the middle, there are only a few basic wooden tables and benches, and the only things they serve are pork, ugali, and fries. The pork you can get dry fried or deep fried and despite being only a really small storefront with probably the worst name ever, the locals know that this is the place to get your pork.

Another interesting observation was that people rely heavily on their mobile phones – with most people having “regular” phones and only a few people having smart phones. Despite the limited functionality of the phones, many Kenyans still do a lot with their phone. If you are in a meeting, it will be rare for a few minutes to go by without hearing one or several phones ring. To them, having their phone ring during a meeting is not a rude act, and even interrupting a conversation they are having with someone else to check their phone or answer a ringing phone is not considered rude (that’s what one expat told me). Another interesting note is that Kenyan’s can pay and send money through their phone. They can even send phone credit to someone else as well.

Bargaining is another activity I quite enjoy. While many people find it to be a stressful or a necessary evil of shopping, I find the process quite fun and entertaining. A couple of interesting things I thought they do quite well are the use of anchoring and the technique of commitment and consistency. As part of the Kenyan bargaining style, the vendors use the back of a newspaper or other scrap piece of paper and write down their initial price. Many times, this price is 3x the actual price they will settle on, and sometimes it is even more than that (like 5x-10x the price they are willing to accept). They then get you to write down your opening price (gaining your commitment) and the negotiations continue from there. It is expected that there will be a back and forth exchange (with you expected to be consistent in slowly raising your price), and when I tried one time to stick For my original price, it didn’t seem to work too well (even though my original price was the most I was willing to pay). By treating this whole process as a game, and being willing to walk away from the deal (though interestingly, many vendors I found did not respond in my favor when I used the walk away technique), While many of the crafts and curios are the same across markets, the availability and variety did vary somewhat (based on my two visits to two different markets).

The last thing I’ll comment on is about security. As a result of recent terrorist activities, security has been increased across the country. For cars/vehicles, it is common for a security guard to check not only your trunk and contents inside your vehicle, but also to use a convex mirror to look and do a sweep underneath your car as well. At malls, each person is checked by a security guard of the same sex typically using both a metal detector wand and a quick pat down. They also look inside your bag, though most of the time I found the bag searches to be more of a cursory search rather than a comprehensive search. If you thought that was bad, airport security takes this to a whole new level. Before you even drive into arrive at the airport, your car is searched and you have to walk through a metal detector. You then need to present your passport and ticket to be allowed into the building, at which time you need to go through yet another set of metal detectors and pass your bag through an x-ray scanner. The next step is pretty normal with you receiving your boarding pass (if you haven’t printed it out or checked in online yet) and then having to go through the security screening to get to the departure area of the airport. If those 3 security checks and metal detectors weren’t enough, before you board the plane, you have to go through one, or if you are lucky, two consecutive x-ray machines/metal detectors.  Don’t ask me why you need to go through 4 different security checks to get onto an airplane for your flight. We’ll just call it TIA, or “This Is Africa” to explain the differences in how things work.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading and please share any comments you have below.

Youth Participants in the Urban Farming Exchange

Nairobi Initial Thoughts

In January 2012, Rooftops Canada ( in partnership with the Mazingira Institute ( hosted a youth exchange in Nairobi, Kenya. As part of my involvement in the local food and urban agriculture movement in Toronto, I was invited, along YUF CSA ( Co-founder Elaine to represent the Toronto delegation. Two youth representatives (Tasco and Kangela) were invited from Cape Town, South Africa, 5 youth (John, James, Shadrack, Eunice, and Harrison) were invited from Nakuru, Kenya and the NACHU organization ( and about a dozen local Nairobi youth were invited to participate as well.

The goal of the program is for the youth (broadly defined as under 35) to share their ideas and experiences from each of our respective cities on urban agriculture and food security issues.

The program began with an introduction from Mazingira Institute, the host organization for the exchange. Introductions were made, an overview of the purpose and context of the trip was made and the rest of the day was spent with introductory presentations by the majority of the participants.

The main programming got started on the second day with a visit to Ndoso Farm, a peri-urban farm run by an enthusiastic and passionate Ndungi Ngogi. At his farm, he grows a variety of vegetables in greenhouses including some of the best peppers I’ve ever tasted. He also grows other fruit, vegetables, and raises fish on his property as well.

Elaine and I gave a presentation on making compost tea, as well as using worm castings to build the soil. Ndungi does a great job of composting using a variety of methods and that is one of his secrets to the success of his garden. He also gave a presentation on another method of composting using grubs, specifically the grubs/larvae of the black soldier fly.

In the afternoon, we went to another of Ndungi’s farms – this one a livestock farm that raises chickens and pigs. It was incredible to see how healthy the animals were, especially with Ndungi using organic methods for all of his activities.

The third day was spent primarily at Mr Rabbit’s Farm. While that isn’t his actual name, it is a nickname he likes to carry around with him. Before arriving at the farm though, we made two detours. The first was to H-Garden which is located in the second largest slum area in Nairobi. At this location, one of the youth leaders Humphrey “grabbed the land” and setup a garden to work with the youth in this area. The local authorities turned a blind eye because they see his project as benefitting the community, even though they don’t have official papers for the land. It was incredible to see a number of sack gardens, as well as rabbits and pigeons being kept on a tiny piece of land.

chili peppers grown in an upcycled tire
rabbits at H-Town Garden

We also had a short visit and interview with KOCH FM, a local radio station run by youth and broadcasting to just a small area in another ghetto area of Nairobi. The entire operation is run out of an repurposed shipping container, complete with an office and sound-proof studio for their broadcasting. To see this local project in action, essentially using just a computer and a microphone was a humbling experience to see how much can be done with so little.

When we finally got to Mr Rabbit’s farm, we had a tour around his property. We had a chance to see how they make their own compost, how they utilize a farming methodology called moist bed gardening, how to butcher a rabbit, enjoy sucking on fresh sugar cane, and see a larger scale rabbit operation.

Sunday, day 4, was a rest day, and a bunch of us spent some the afternoon at a local swimming pool for some much needed R&R.

On Monday, we continued our farm excursions to two local places. The focus was on value-added products and we first stopped at a local place that manufactured toys using recycled plastic. Using just two small buildings, they sort, melt, and mold recycled plastic into some really nice toys. It looked like they also had a bunch of corn growing in a back lot as well. We finished the day at Esther’s farm which is another peri-urban farm in a new suburb of Nairobi. Here, we had a chance to have a few hands-on demonstrations of how to make yogurt, how to make peanut butter (using either dry roasted peanuts or fried peanuts), and how to make mango jam. The peanut butter and mango jam were some of the best I’ve ever had! Esther has what we would consider to be a cottage industry that takes.

That’s all for this update. Look for more pictures and posts as the exchange continues.

travel goals

Some Day, Maybe Travel Goals

travel goals

As we go through our lives, we all have those flashes of inspiration and dreams that come to mind about things we should do or adventures we’d like to take. And I think for many of us, we let those moments pass us by and never think seriously or take action or seriously on these dreams. So instead of just thinking about them and letting them pass me by, I thought I’d take some time to start compiling a list of those goals and at least start the planning process. They may be big, audacious, and unrealistic at this time, but if you have a dream, the passion to achieve your dreams, and the determination to follow through with them, the sky’s the limit and the only one stopping us is ourselves. As I think and dream about the future, I’m reminded of this quote by Theodore Roosevelt

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

As I started this process of writing down my goals, I’ve split them into a variety of categories, including life skills, travel, personal achievements, personal, and professional, and tried to attach a timeline as to when I would like to accomplish it by, or in the case of the travel goals, if there is a specific time when it takes place. Thinking of this a a work-in-progress list of things I’d like to do (or have done), I’d like to share with you what’s on my list of travel goals for the future. And if you have any interesting ideas you’d like to share, leave your suugestions in the comments!

  1. Attend (participate in?!) the Running of the Bulls
  2. Visit Macchu Piccu
  3. Explore Easter Island
  4. Visit Christ Redeemer Statue
  5. Snowboard Whistler / Rockies
  6. Attend / Participate in La Tomatina
  7. Ride an ostrich (seriously!)
  8. Stay in an underwater hotel
  9. Dogsled in the ArcticVictoria Falls
  10. Attend Oktoberfest in Germany
  11. Stay a night in a Japanese capsule hotel
  12. Pushkar Camel Fest
  13. Drive route 66
  14. Go skydiving
  15. Climb Mt Fuji
  16. Scuba Diva in the Great Barrier Reef
  17. Attend a Super Bowl
  18. Attend Mardi Gras
  19. Scuba Dive to a ship-wreck
  20. Go Surfing in Hawaii
  21. Horseback Riding/Ride a camel across a sandy desert (completed Feb 2008)
  22. Go white water rafting (completed summer 2004 and fall 2007)
  23. Attend Carnival Ride in a hot air balloon
  24. Drive down the Autobahn
  25. Go Hiking in the Grand Canyon
  26. Fenway Park ballgame vs. Yankees >
  27. Run a marathon in foreign city (Big Five Marathon perhaps?!)
  28. Trek in the Amazon rainforest
  29. Bare all on nude beach (maybe….)
  30. Galapagos Islands
  31. Egyptian Pyramids
  32. New Zealand hiking
  33. Ride through the Venitian Canals
  34. Travel and explore Scandanavia
  35. Go on at least a week long sailing trip
  36. Week long camping/canoe trip
  37. Participate in an orienteering race
  38. Attend Burning Man FestivalRide the Trans-Siberian Train

Lemon and herbs

The Lemon/Herb Camping Trip

I’m going on a camping trip and I’m going to bring a canoe, a tent, and a sleeping bag. I’m also going to bring lemon and herbs, a flint and steel, and a fishing rod.

Hopefully we’ll have a tasty and filling dinner – otherwise it’ll be a (maybe cold) soup of lemon/herbs.

Seriously – it should be awesome!

A followup post exploring how successful this camping trip to Algonquin went will be posted after the trip in May.


A Long Overdue Homecoming!

homecomingGreetings everyone from Toronto!

I am happy to say that me (and all my luggage) are now safe and sound back home in Toronto! After a month of traveling in India and another month and a half after that in Europe, it’s good to be home. And while it’s almost impossible to sum up all my experiences and adventures in a single email, I’ll highlight a few of my favourite moments from the various places that I went to.

Cherrapunjee, India:
This is a place that I will forever be talking about because of so many great experiences that I had here. Advertised as an eco-tourism destination, we had a chance to see several incredible living root bridges and go caving in the wettest place on Earth (the city holds 2 Guinness World Records).

Barcelona, Spain:
This city was full of amazing sights and cool people. From the Picasso museum to the architectural wonders of Gaudi, I had a really good time in the city, and the nightlife was a blast too!

Interlaken, Switzerland:
Did you know that the world’s longest sled run is in Switzerland and is 15km long?! And though we didn’t go down the longest one because that would’ve involved a 2.5 hours hike up to the starting point after you get off from the top of the chairlift, we did go down another really, really, long one that was super fun and a real adrenaline rush!

Vienna, Austria:
2 operas in 3 nights, including a 5 hour Wagner opera with standing room tickets! A little crazy….yes, feet a little sore at the end of the night…you bet, but worth the experience…definitely!

Berlin, German:
Besides seeing the remains of the Berlin wall and some cool museums, Berlin offered us a unique and exquisite culinary experience at a restaurant called Unsicht-Bar. After ordering your food from a poetic sounding menu, you’re led into a pitch black room where you are seated, are served, and enjoy your food without being able to see a thing! And as the food comes and goes, your taste buds are stretched as you try to identify exactly what it is you are eating. And yes, you do get to see the “answer card” to know what it was you were putting in your mouth over the past hour or so of dining. And yes, you can get some surprises, like bull’s tongue in my sister’s “surprise” menu.


The Great Month-Long Trip Through India


As many of you have asked me about my trip through India, I thought I’d give you a rundown of all the places that I went to in India as well as brief description for those of you who are thinking of traveling there in the future.

Delhi ==> Jaisalmer (state of Rajasthan)

We took an overnight, almost 18 hour train ride from Delhi to Jaisalmer. This was the longest train ride of our entire trip, but worth it as we started a 3 day, 2 night desert camel safari from here.

Jaisalmer ==> Jodhpur

I really liked Rajasthan from my first trip here in December and so decided to take some more time to see more cities here. Unfortunately, we had to skip Udaipur as train connections were pretty slim in and out of the city. Jodhpur is similar to most Rajasthani cities with a fort on top of the hill, a market and a museum.

Jodhpur ==> Jaipur

There were 2 reason for going to Jaipur. The first is that I think it has the best shopping in Rajasthan for crafts – though you must bargain like crazy. The second reason is that train connections are much better for getting into Madhya Pradesh (our next destination)
Jaipur is part of the “golden triangle” which includes Delhi and Agra and this is one of the most common trips that foreign tourist take while in India

Jaipur ==> Gwalior (state of Madhya Pradesh)

This city in MP boasts a huge hilltop fort, cool statues carved into the side of the rock on the climb up, and is NOT a touristy city. As a result, the restaurants, food, and hotels were disappointing, but the fort and sights there were worth the trip

Gwalior ==> Orchha via Jhansi

We took a bus to Jhansi, then auto rickshaw to Orchha and I would highly recommend Orchha as a place to go while in MP or while in India. It is called the “hidden temple” as there is a huge fort and ruins of a fort and temples growing out the jungle. This is apparantly also the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (according to LP)

Jhansi ==> Khajuraho

We splurged and hired a taxi to take us to Khajuraho to see tha Kama Sutra temples. Despite being a super touristy city, the temples were beautiful, grand, and magnificent, and worth the trip.

Khajuraho ==> Varanasi via Satna (state of Uttar Pradesh)

We took a taxi again to Satna, then caught a train to Varanasi. This train was extremely late and delayed by around 6 hours, but we made it without any other problems

Varanasi ==> Darjeeling (state of West Bengal)

we had to take a train to NJP (New Jaipalguri) then a taxi up to the hill station of Darjeeling. Unfortunately we missed the tea plucking season, but took a 2 day hike up to the border of Nepal and stayed in a nice resort which made the trip worthwhile.

Darjeeling ==> Cherrapunjee via NJP and Guwahati (state of Meghalaya in NE India)

Cherrapunjee is a MUST SEE if you go and visit the NE states. I could write so much about it including the living root bridges, caving, being the wettest place in the world, and having a great place to stay, but you really must go there to experience it for yourself

Cherrapunjee ==> Khazaranga (state of Assam)

Here we went on a Rhino safari, but besides the park, there really isn’t too much else to do here.

Khazaranga ==> Delhi via. Guwahati

For the last leg of our journey, we flew back to Delhi from Guwahati and ended our cross country journey from on the of farthest West places in India to one of the farthest East places in India and from the Pakistan border to the Bangladesh border and back to Delhi.

When I get some more time, I will try and post some pictures from each of these places as well as the approximate location within India to give you some perspective on where each place is.