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Africa Days Thirteen through Fifty

Part Four: Powerlessness

(Friday January 28th, 2000)

So, here we are back in Nairobi. 

Landing this time I felt a new surge of confidence.  I was rested, relaxed and tanned (well, burnt.)  This time I wouldn’t let Nairobi get to me, I would get to it first.  My plan was to assault its dirty, dangerous grimness with humor, politeness and a cheery disposition.  That would show them.

While we were waiting for the waiting for our baggage the taxi drivers swarmed by the open door.  The fact that they seemingly could not cross the threshold of the baggage area unless invited by a passenger confirmed my suspicions that they were vampires.  In the pursuit of efficiency, we decided that I should go to the other terminal where the ATM was located while Kim waited for the luggage and got a taxi. 

I went out the door and the drivers started their blood cries.  I smiled, walked quickly through the crowd, and said, “Nothankyounothankyounothankyounothankyounothankyounothankyounothanknothankyounothankyounothankyou!” They cracked up!  Ten minutes in and my strategy was already working!

I walked to the other terminal with only one driver trailing me the full distance instead of the usual four or five.  I took some money out of the ATM and headed back.  I told him “no thank you” at least a half dozen more times and rejoined Kim who was still waiting for our luggage.  When we came out, we went back to the taxi “company” we had used before and negotiated a ride.  My favorite part of the process was when the driver that followed me to the ATM interrupted and said, “No wait!  You promised me!  You said I could drive you!”

We drove into the city without incident in a really nice brand new car, a Honda of some kind.  Driving a new car that still functioned properly, had seat belts and upholstery was an exciting new way to travel in Kenya.  I was in such high spirits, that I barely turned my head when we passed an intersection where people with jackets and blankets were trying to put out a fire burning under, on, and in a car at the corner.  Kim was so busy looking for people coming out of the crowds to rip us off that she didn’t even notice.  We went directly to make reservations for what promised to be another exciting new way to travel in Kenya: public bus.  We went to the River Road Akamba station and made reservations for a bus leaving the next morning for Kisumu.  Akamba is one of the more reputable bus companies in Kenya.  You can say Akamba generically, just like Xerox or Kleenex or, I discovered, Omo (a detergent).

Then we went to find a hotel for the night.  Instead of staying at the Dolat, the scene of our first sleepless visit to Nairobi, we decided to go up several classes and stay at the luxurious Meridian Hotel.  They boasted twelve floors, three restaurants, an internet café, a bar, a convention center, a swimming pool, free continental breakfast, and, most importantly, an  in room television.  We were set.

We went up to our room with two bellhops.  We were very pleased with our room.  I should say rooms.  We had a kitchenette, a sitting room, a bedroom with a king sized bed, a bathroom with a huge bathtub, and, as we were on the corner of the building, two balconies.  The bellhops went around checking light bulbs, flipping switches, spraying for mosquitoes, and a bunch of other nonsense to increase their tip.  After several days of mild discomfort, we had arrived at some measure of luxury.

Before, I go any further I need to make some corrections about Nairobi.  One, her friend was not robbed on the way to or from the airport, but she was robbed on Uhuru Highway the road that goes to the airport.  Two, Kim didn’t have her luggage stolen at the Dolat, but rather at a hotel in Mombasa, a major port city on the Kenyan coast.  Third, she wasn’t kept up all night by the sounds of rampart prostitution at the Dolat, but rather at the Meridian, where we were staying that night.  I found this stuff out when Kim read Part One, and I certainly didn’t know it when we were checking in to the Meridian.

Blissfully ignorant, I went to the Internet café, replied to some e-mail and found out that UM won the Orange Bowl in exciting fashion.  I wasn’t able to stay on for very long, as Internet costs an arm and a leg in Kenya.  We went to one of the restaurants in the hotel, the Chinese one (of course), had a hot bath and then watched television for a while.  What was not mentioned about the television was that it only got six channels.  Three of these channels were broadcasting the exact same Indian soap operas and sit-coms.  One of the other channels was one of the duller BBC channels and the other two didn’t come in properly.  I could barely distinguish the figures of Mulder and Scully on one of the two channels and that was probably worse than no television at all. 

Although the bus didn’t leave until later in the morning, we woke up at four in the morning.  Why would Gerard wake up at four in the morning?  Fire?  Earthquake? Overly enthusiastic prostitutes? No, it was the Muslims again!  Directly under the balcony attached to the bedroom, five floors down, was a mosque.  Don’t forget it was still Ramadan…I certainly couldn’t.  I was eventually able to go back to sleep for a short time.  But it turned out that having an exposure on both sides to two streets, meant that we had effectively doubled the amount of noise from traffic.  Here’s a misleadingly peaceful view of both streets from one balcony and the second (if I have room to add them.)  I have since read The Lonely Planet’s East African Guide, and they have this to stay about the road we were directly above, “the only problem here is that most of the rooms cop the noise and car exhaust fumes from the street below and it’s quite horrendous.”

It was early in the morning on January 6th that Kimberly Ann Lindblade was forcibly relieved of the responsibility of choosing hotels in Nairobi.

Being up already, we went and got our free continental breakfast, which only ended up costing a couple of hundred shillings.  Afterwards, having some time to kill, we went bought some books at a nearby bookstore.  After collecting our bags and checking out, we walked over to the River Road Akamba station.  The Kisumu bus was already there and being loaded.  We put our bags in the storage compartment and went in to get our seats.  Akamba actually has assigned seating, and they don’t generally sell more tickets than they have seats, unlike most of the bus companies.  When we got on it was clear that someone was sitting in our seats, always a drag, but doubly so when you don’t speak the same language.  We went to find the conductor, and joined the crowd of people with the same problem.  Apparently there were two different busses going to Kisumu at the same time and that we were to go on the other one, the number two bus.  So we, all the passengers from the number two bus, pulled our bags out of the storage compartment and moved them a little ways down the block where we were told to wait for the next bus.  It came a couple of minutes later and we started to load it up.  After it was half full, another official came and said that it was the number one bus, not the number two bus, so we had to get off.  At this point the Kenyans around us started to get upset.

I think that one of the most important skills that you can cultivate in a foreign country is sensitivity to unusual circumstances.  It’s like when you go into the woods and you notice that suddenly all of the birds have scattered from the trees and bugs have stopped chirping.  They know something that you don’t because they live there.  Maybe it’s trouble, maybe not, but you’d better pay attention.  I try to keep an eye on the Kenyans around me, if they start reacting, then I know something is irregular and I had better watch out. 

This was clearly irregular.  They also started complaining, mostly in English.  They argued, quite neatly I thought, that it would be much easier to just change the number of the bus, since all of the number one passengers were on the bus already and all of the number two passengers were on the other.  It certainly made more sense than taking everyone and their baggage off on one bus and putting them on the other.  Of course, that latter of the two is exactly what we did.  Half an hour later, after we had once again removed all of our bags and resettled, we left.

Kim had set me up for a pretty miserable time.  She thought that the prospect of sitting on a crowded old bus for six hours barreling through Kenya would not be very much fun for me, but should be undertaken as part of my Kenyan education.  Leading up to the moment that we left I would have agreed with her.  I imagined a horribly crowded broken-down bus with live chickens and five people to a seat. 

I was pleasantly surprised.  It was a fairly comfortable ride.  There was no legroom, the upholstery was a little threadbare, and the seats were stuck in a fully reclined, nearly horizontal position, but, hey, we had seats!  And no chickens! 

She was right about the barreling though.  Wow!  These busses do not stop for anything.  There were many larger trucks, and many cars that were faster, but, pound for pound these busses were the kings of the road, and they knew it.  The main road from Nairobi to Kisumu is two-lane tarmac (well, most of the way it’s tarmac; parts are a bit rougher than others).  The bus would roar up behind a slower vehicle, of any kind, and would pass them as soon as possible.  Uphill, downhill, with a clear sight of the on-coming traffic or not, the driver would just go for it.  While none of the cars crashed behind us, I’m sure a couple of the smaller ones were muscled off the road and on to the shoulder.  We were sitting right up front of the bus and had a clear view of the road over the driver’s shoulder.  There were more than a couple of times I had to close my eyes, because my understanding of velocity, mass, momentum, traction, the inability of two solid objects to simultaneously occupy the same space, the braking process, and physics in general did not allow for any possible outcome except head-on collision.  In the end, I left the watching of the road to Kim.  Her instructions were to tell me the moments when I absolutely could not look up from my book.  It worked out pretty well, until I realized that she was also closing her eyes. 

I resolved to either look only sideways out the window, or at my book.  Both were great.  I was reading a book called “High Fidelity” by Nick Hornsby.  Half pop-culture minutiae.  Half relationship angst.  Mostly British.  All funny.

Outside the window Kenya was whizzing by. 


We went through so much country in one trip that it is really hard to describe it in any coherent way.  We started off in the busy downtown of Nairobi, through the rich suburbs, through the slums and markets, up in to the hills, up in to the highlands through the Rift Valley, past huge lakes that looked pink from distance because of the number of flamingos, through mountains, through dark green tea country, through a couple of towns, through brown farmlands and into Kisumu.  I am at a loss for how  to begin describing it...

So, I think I’ll leave it at that.  I hope to travel again through the same areas again, albeit, at much reduced speed.  When I do, I’ll obviously take some pictures to help me out. 

I know I’ve overused the word, but it was beautiful.

We stopped twice along the way, once at a petrol station and once just on the side of the road at some small town.  At each stop we were inundated with consumer options.  Vendors know that the busses stop at certain spots, so they lie in wait.  There are three basic varieties of vendors: the immobile and mobile food vendors, and the Meijer-One-Stop-Shopping hawker.  The immobile vendors are the ones with enough money to open a little roadside stand.  They often have electricity, refrigeration, and a small selection of hot food.  The mobile food vendors would either come on to the bus or crowd around the windows.  These are really tall busses, so they would have to reach all the way up with their boxes of crackers, groundnuts, roasted maize, or sodas while you would have to lean out of the window and reach down to get anything.  Some of them had dealt with this logistical problem by attaching their goods to long poles.  It’s a form of African drive-up fast food that Kim calls corn on a stick.  The Meijer-One-Stop-Shopping hawker can be found almost anywhere in Kenya.  They sell almost every random bit of crap you can think of:  clocks, radios, women’s underwear, bowie knives, Casio keyboards, calculators, mosquito nets, watches, torches, hats, surge protectors and plug adaptors, etc. etc.  Why anyone would want to buy a hammer en route from Nairobi to Kisumu is anyone’s guess.  Someone must, or these guys would go somewhere else to sell their junk.

We whizzed through the rest of the trip.  Between the book I was reading, and enjoying immensely, and the landscape rushing by, I was, again in high spirits.  There must be something about enjoying myself in Kenya that summons burning cars.  About twenty kilometers away from Kisumu, we came upon a cloud of black smoke and a large crowd of people.  Whenever something goes wrong here everyone stops what they are doing and comes out to take a look.  You could see people running from their houses and fields to watch.  What they saw was either a large car or a mini-bus in flames.  I mean really on fire.  Flames eight feet high kind of fire.  It wasn’t clear what had happened, it could have been an accident or another case of spontaneous combustion.  It wasn’t even clear if anyone had been hurt.  There is no such thing as EMS or Fire departments here, especially outside of a city.  If people had been hurt or if attempts had been made to stop the fire by the villagers, we had clearly missed them.  Now people were just standing around watching.  I suppose they would wait until the wreck burned out and cooled of and then pulled it out of the road.  As it was, the road was impassable, both because of the car on fire and the crowds of people watching, so the bus just went off road and drove around it. 

So, we arrived back in Kisumu.  This would have been Thursday, January 6th.  Man, am I far behind…It’s the fourth of March today…It’s best that I rush through the last little bits here and get to something more interesting…

In our absence the Guesthouse had relocated.  Instead of staying at the guesthouse you have seen pictures of, we were at a new, less picturesque spot.  Despite the fact that Kisumu is right on Lake Victoria, there are precious few places where you can actually see the lake.  The geography just doesn’t provide many good vantage points.  The old guesthouse was located at one of those rare good vantage points. 

The new guesthouse is nowhere near a good vantage point, unless a good view you’re looking for is a vacant lot.  Although much larger, the new guesthouse was also not as nice.  The old guesthouse had a very airy homey feeling.  This place was very dark and claustrophobic.  By the end of the first day we missed the old guesthouse.

We unpacked our bags and settled in.  The plan was to stay at the guesthouse for a week until the Miami Vice house was ready.  We arrived on Thursday, on Friday morning we lost power at the guesthouse.    The askari had just let some guy come in and disconnect it.  Julius and I realized it late in the day, certainly too late for anyone to reconnect it.  As luck would have it this was the last weekend of Ramadan, and Monday had been declared a national holiday.  Damn Muslims!  I have no real problem with their ideology, their culture, their beliefs, or any of that, I just hate them because they deny me sleep and comfort on a seemingly regular basis, which I believe is pretty reasonable, and defensible, basis for casual hatred.

Julius was going home to Kakamega for the weekend, so we were on our own for the next couple of days, essentially camping out in the guesthouse. The first night we tried it out.  We lit candles, cooked with the gas stove, and made it through cold showers.  It wasn’t until we went to bed that we really had trouble.  Since Julius had been really busy just trying to get everything moved in to the guesthouse, he hadn’t had time to install the mosquito nets yet.  Not only that, but we had no idea where the mosquito nets were.  It was horrible. Wave after wave of mosquitoes bombed us hour throughout the night.  I don’t know that either of us got more than a couple of hours of sleep the entire night. 

In the morning we packed up our stuff, including an entire backpack full of transformers and electronic gear for the computer, and moved into the Nyanza Club.  The Nyanza Club is Kisumu’s “exclusive” country club, which I wrote about a little bit in Africa Day Three.  They have a pool, tennis courts, squash courts, satellite television, a bar, a restaurant, and small casino.  They also have several nice rooms that you can stay in fairly cheaply.  They all have a beautiful view of the lake.  They also have one of the few good vantage points.  We settled in and unpacked…again.

I spent most of the evening in the lounge with the richest children in Kisumu watching Godzilla (the most recent version, unfortunately) on television.  Later that night we even watched all of Saturday Night Fever!  Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to admit, you just miss TV… 

Despite the fantastic view, the room turned out to be less than perfect. When we went to bed, we discovered that the local bat population was using the attic space above our room as a batcave.  All night long they squeaked in and squeaked out of a small opening in the bdiscovered a couple of little worms crawling in her pants.  When we returned to the room we looked around and found that the little worms were in our beds and bags.  Going to sleep was a little more difficult for me that night.  As I lay in bed, trying to sleep, every inch of my skin was hyper-alert.  Every tiny sensation was a worm, I was sure of it.  At times, the sheer magnitude of my wimpiness surprises even me.

Well, I said that I would wrap this part up quickly, and I‘ve already gone on another full page.  Let’s see what else happened leading up to moving in…

After the long weekend was over we returned to the guesthouse, where the power was restored on Tuesday.  Just after it was restored the water was turned off.  We just couldn’t win.  The same askari that let the electric guy in let the water guy in, despite the stern talking to that Julius gave him.  In contrast to the electricity, the water was back on the same day, mostly because Julius was there to take care of it.

So, a week slowly passed, as we prepared to move in…