Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Farasi- My Trusted Steed

If you want to get around Nairobi you have a few choices. The first is a decent public bus system. You’d be hard-pressed to find a schedule or map but a few conversations with local folks and you can figure out the basic route and pick up locations. The second option is matatus- usually VW mini-buses, almost always pretty broken down and driven by questionably-licensed and certifiably insane drivers. They also run set numbered routes, stopping along the way to shove as many passengers as possible into the small vehicle. As horrible as it sounds they are a really good way to get shorter distances during the day for the cost of about 25 cents. The third option is a taxi, which surprisingly ends up being about as expensive as in Washington D.C. None of these options, except for specific taxis are acceptable for after dark.

Which leads me to my car. Between the post-dark transport restrictions and the 1.5-hour commute each way between Nairobi proper and my school, I decided I either needed to get a car or kiss my sanity good bye. This raised a new question…how does one purchase a car in Nairobi?

The used car market in Nairobi is an interesting one. Every shopping center has a dedicated space for posted advertisements for everything from homes, to cars, to appliances, to entertainment. Each topic is given a separate board. People post pictures of their cars with listings on price, year, and contact information. If searching the boards doesn’t do it for you, you have two other used-car options. One is to work with an importer to bring in the car you want, most likely from Japan or Singapore. They only problem with that is that you have to pay duty taxes on the car, which usually ends up almost doubling the cost. If that doesn’t do it for you, you are left with the car bazar.

The car bazar is pretty wonderful. Imagine Craig’s list, but in person, on a field. People trying to sell their cars, buy a spot at the bazar and park their cars for the day. People looking to purchase a car pay the equivalent of $5 to walk through, ask questions, test drive, and arrange a possible deal. Knowing I would need some back-up, I asked a taxi driver I had been using quite a bit if he would be willing to go with me and check out the car options. Luckily, my friend Emily was in town at the time as well so she agreed to tag along. We went there on a Saturday morning and were amused to find the bazar located just down the street from the giant tent church and across the road from the polo field.

The bazar is pretty big, with hundreds of cars all organized by size and type. One section has predominately sedans, another has cross-over cars, another with small SUVs and yet another with large SUVs and trucks. Interestingly, the valuation of cars in Kenya is very different from many other places. A Toyota of any make and any year always goes for the most. A not so nice 1997 Toyota Corolla could easily go for $6000 and would not decrease much more in price as it ages. On the other hand, older Nissan sedans can go for $3000-$4000. With all of the cars, year doesn’t seem to matter as much as make and model. Trucks are always more expensive than SUVs because people who buy them expect to make money with them (use them for work). As a result, no one purchases trucks commercially.

After looking around for a few hours I exchanged contact information with the owner of a 2000 Subaru Impreza, that my friend Emily noted was “Colts blue.” Over the next few days the owner and I negotiated until I got to a price I was ok with. Once we had agreed, he prepared the car agreement and I took the car to a mechanic of my choosing. Unlike in the US, mechanics tend to be in the informal sector and it is very hard and extremely important to find a good and honest one. Lucky for me, my friend Leah and her husband had been using a great mechanic for years who agreed to take a look at it for me. He gave the car a clean bill of health so we signed the documents and made the exchange.

Unlike the US, cars are registered as themselves not to an owner specifically, so no need for DMV visits or new license plates. The number on the plates signifies the year the car was brought into Kenya and stays that way throughout. Technically you are supposed to register the car under your 'pin' (a national ID number). But since foreigners don't have pins, I'm still working on transferring it...thus is Kenyan bureaucracy.

Since Emily had so aptly pointed out my car was in-fact two obnoxious shades past Colts blue, I decided to name my car Farasi, or Horse in Swahili. She has treated me well on the insane roads of Nairobi, which deserve a blog posting of their own. Until next time...

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