This time I do remember boarding the Boeing 707 of Kenya Airways at Fiumicino airport, as it was like moving into another dimension. All passengers seemed exotic to me and there was an African crew! After dinner I read and re-read all the documents I was given in order to impress the people I would be working with. At dawn, the plane started to lose altitude and I was very excited when I saw an incredible green lake in the desert. The pilot explained that it was Lake Turkana and that we were close to landing in Nairobi.
Then I felt it. It was a light stitch of pain in my lower abdomen. I dismissed it at first as the consequence of lake Turkana´s beauty on my system, but when it repeated itself I knew that not only were the passengers on board colorful and exotic but also the food bacteria belonging to that category. As we had less than an hour until landing, I decided that I was going to manage by focusing my mind on my surroundings. In any case, the pre-landing queue for the plane’s toilet was such that I had no options left.
By the time we landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport I only had one thing in my mind: finding a toilet! I learnt that it is called choo in Kiswahili. This was my first and very necessary brush with the language. My obligatory gut-related pause took its time. When I was able to emerge, I was relieved all the passengers were already gone. Although it did not seem like it to me, it had taken quite a while! Luckily there were still immigration officers waiting and I entered Kenya after a careful and thorough examination of my exotic Uruguayan passport. Only my suitcase remained on the conveyor belt.
It was early morning in Nairobi when I left the airport building and started looking for the airport bus, as advised by my FAO colleagues in Rome, who were aware of the need to save my limited fellowship resources and my own meager capital. I looked up and down the front of the airport and found it empty. No FAO reception committee despite the information forwarded about my arrival! Eventually I found a bus and made my way slowly towards it. My suitcase was heavy and my cabin luggage probably heavier and its strap was cutting into my shoulder! Be aware that I packed for a two and a half year journey as I was well aware that I did not have the funds to return to Uruguay until the end of the fellowship.
I entered the empty bus (with my luggage as there was no haul), chose a seat near the front and prepared myself for a long wait. I was feeling good and looking forward to the future. My gut seemed settled by now. In those days there were no cell phones so I could not call anyone and I was on my own. I was about to have a catnap as I lacked sleep when movement between the trees caught my eye. My first impression was that I was dreaming but I was actually seeing the long spotted neck, at the end of which was the head of a giraffe that was busy browsing on a yellow-bark acacia just 10 metres away from the bus. Amazed, I discovered another one and, after my eye got used to it, about fifteen more animals, all sailing slowly across the airport parking area in search of fresh acacia shoots. They were very relaxed and, as the first rays of sunlight bathed their faces, I saw the most beautiful eyelashes ever created.
The sputtering and vibration of of the bus’ diesel engine interrupted my giraffe-induced rapture and forced me to focus on holding on. I considered myself very lucky to be the sole passenger on the bus. A choo stop has its advantages I thought… My joy was short-lived. To my surprise, the bus stopped a few blocks from the airport to pick up passengers. “This cannot be”, I thought, “the airport bus goes to the centre of town and it should not pick people up on the road!” Despite my mental opposition, the stops continued at regular intervals and the bus started to fill up. This was clearly no airport bus but a normal city bus, part of the Kenya Bus Services known as KBS buses and I had no idea of its route or destination! Now I also realized why it was so cheap! To put it mildly, I had a minor panic attack! But, as there was nothing I could do, I accepted my fate and waited for the outcome of my wrong choice.
I now need to elaborate on the concept of a full bus. In the countries I had lived in until then, a bus is full and stops picking up passengers when all seats are occupied and standing people are not able to move. Not in Kenya. I witnessed a new definition of bus “fullness”. The bus did not skip a single stop and people kept getting in, first to occupy the seats –I counted four bodies in mine in addition to myself. Throughout the bus, bodies filled all available spaces, maximizing every possible centimeter with unbelievable precision, as if accomplished by professional packers. First I lost physical contact with my luggage and soon afterwards I also lost visual contact. I regretted their likely loss with a sense of emptiness and not a little despair but what could I do? My immediate attention was focused on more vital activities: getting sufficient breathing air to be able to reach the final destination. Luckily, my earlier gut incident was still not showing signs of returning. At least something is going well; I though, while trying to position my nose in an air pocket between a shoulder and a face. I smiled but the face did not! Its eyes were closed in a sound sleep!
The passengers included primary and secondary students, mothers with babies, workers, police and even a Maasai warrior in full regalia trying to avoid impaling passengers with his spear and simi (long double edged knife). Despite the mass of bodies and apparent discomfort, laughter was frequent and this would continue during all the time I spent in Africa. Although I was looked at as an unusual passenger, I did not feel threatened or uncomfortable. Body odour mingled with the smell of baby talc, stale mothers’ milk, fresh fruit and exotic spices.
When I was starting to feel that my choice of bus may have been my last, I felt a slight slackening of bodies after one of the stops and then, gradually, the bus began to expel people and finally stopped at the end of its route. To my amazement, my bags were still there and seemingly intact! All doors opened and out went the few remaining passengers and I remained, like at the start of the journey, on my own. I asked the driver where we were and I seem to recall that he mentioned Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, very far from my destination in the centre of town.
I am not sure what prompted the next act and it remains as another mystery of my lucky life in Africa. The Driver, clearly seeing the desolation showing in my face, asked where I was going. I explained to him that the Serena Hotel in the centre of Nairobi was my ultimate destination. “You are too far from there my friend”, he said. And then added, “this area is not safe as there are too many shiftas!” (rebels, outlaws) to end with a “you do not see wazungu (white people) walking here and there are no taxis either” This left me speechless and I was desperately trying to figure out my next move -clearly quasi suicidal- when the bus doors closed and it moved again
Before I could protest for him to let me leave it, he grinned and said: “I will take you there!” He said it twice as I asked him to repeat it for fear of having misheard him. So I was the sole passenger on a trip that ended when the bus entered the offloading area of the Serena Hotel where the doors were opened and I descended to the amazed look of the concierges! That was a gesture of human solidarity that not only moved me but started to prepare me for what I would find repeatedly in Africa.
He departed with a wave and I entered the Serena. My sense of elation evaporated the moment I learnt the prices of a room and decided that this was not for me and went back to the street. This is not a good or common thing to do when you are carrying the amount of luggage I was, but, as I did not know this then, my saving obsession got the best of me. It was even more unexpected for a mzungu (white person) to walk around carrying bags in the streets of Nairobi.
I began to ask people on the street for a cheap place to sleep that night and, as is normal in most of Africa, someone offered to accompany me to precisely such a place! Needless to say, my idea and the one of my Good Samaritan were quite different! After walking to two possible places, we parted amicably. Luckily, there was another passerby who took me to a hostel nearby that seemed clean so I settled for it, left my bags and went for an afternoon stroll to find my bearings and get my first feel for the place. (Note added on 8/10/14: The hostel was the C.P.K., now the Anglican Church of Kenya Guest House located in Bishop’s Road, off Ngong Road. The Guest House was used to accommodate missionaries from up country missions. See: http://www.ackguesthouses.or.ke/nairobi/index.html).
I returned to the hostel at dusk, very tired and ready for dinner and bed. The day had been long. Dinner was a modest affair served on a communal table. As I was very hungry I helped myself to an abundant helping of the only available dish: a meat stew that did not look too bad and there was also rice to go with it. I am a fast eater and this time I did not wait and got on with the job.
For the first 10 seconds the mouthful of meat behaved like any tough and seriously overcooked piece of Uruguayan beef. After that fleeting evaluation passed, a number of things started to happen, all new to me until then. In what I thought a miracle of chemistry, the half-chewed meat suddenly caught fire in my mouth and, hoping to be unnoticed but trying to smile –an impossible task while suffering third degree burns- I spat it out. “Uhmm very grrood” I muttered while looking for the nearest source of water and wondering about whether my vocal chords were still there. While my mouth and surrounding areas were being cauterized, I felt the hair on my head and neck rise, accompanied by copious sweating of my eyelids, something that hitherto had never taken place! As I had never cried with the outside of my eyes, I was clearly concerned but managed to wipe the sweaty tears and gulped a glass of water in a rush. I could not distract myself from focusing on the status of my already castigated pyloric region and hoped that would withstand this added and novel punishment.
Trying to appear normal and having recovered some of my speech function I muttered another positive comment about the food while I waited for the water to calm things down under the clearly amused look of my African table mates, too polite to laugh openly at my rather comic status. Thankfully, in nature all comes to an end, and to my relief the burning eased and slowly the affected organs started to respond again. I also learnt that I had just experienced my first encounter with a beef curry of the “mild” variety.
I was sure that I had locked my room to go for dinner so I was surprised and concerned when I found it open. “The only thing that I need now is a thief” I thought and walked in prepared to defend my meager possessions. To my surprise, my lamp was on and a man was lying on my bed! Confused but very tired I said good night and went to sleep in another place only to spot, among the clothes of my roommate a white priest collar. It all fell in place as I became aware that my cheap hostel find was a religious place were church personnel posted in the field coming to do business in Nairobi. So it is that, surrounded by sanctity, I had a very good night’s sleep and did not hear anyone else entering the room although it was full when I woke up to face another day. Clearly they were quite angelical in their movement.
The following morning, after a curry-free breakfast and happy to learn that all my body parts had healed, I managed to make contact with the local FAO office. Clearly unaware of my gut-rot related delay in arriving to the lobby, they were very concerned that I did not turn up at the airport and thought that I had missed my flight. They also gave me the address of the Fairview hotel where I should have been and the contacts of my future boss, a Scot with whom I met later the same morning.
But that is the beginning of another story!