Nairobi

The Kombi falls

I will be unfair if I would not say a few words about our VW Kombi. It seems that these days these vehicles still attract quite a lot of attention among car lovers. Although I never saw it in this light at the time we had it, they dominated the minibus market and most of the Kenya safari companies used them. Then VW came up with a new model that was not as good for rough roads as their back doors became undone and needed to be welded to keep them shut! Very soon afterwards the Japanese minibuses replaced them.

m mara kombi

A young-looking Bushsnob posing with the kombi after driving through a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The Kombi had, like any vehicle, good and bad features. My first concern was safety, as I had never driven a car with the engine at the back and I felt rather vulnerable in case of an accident, particularly the way driving in Kenya was in those days! I also needed to fit seat belts, surprisingly absent in a UN vehicle! Its lack of 4WD was another rather serious drawback and I recall several instances of getting stuck in places that a 4WD would not even have skidded!

l naiv july 82 after being stuck

My wife (red shirt) and our friend Aurora resting after pushing the kombi out of the sand at Naivasha. July 1982.

One particularly bad instance was at Amboseli National Park when, trying to approach the swamp to get a better view of an elephant, we ended up into soft black cotton soil. This kind of mud sticks to your wheels filling their threads so your tyres soon become smooth! Fed-up of fruitlessly attempting to get the car unstuck I placed our BBQ grid under one of the wheels to see if I could get some better grip. It was good and bad. We got out of the spot but the grid got somehow ejected with such force into the thicket surrounding the swamp that we never found it again and had to cook our chicken on a stick that night!

Tsavo W stuck with paul rossiter

Stuck again! This time on a rainy day at Tsavo West National Park. My wife -with the raincoat- and Paul lifting and digging to place the spare under the wheel to get some grip.

It also had the rare ability of losing traction and stopping while driving slowly over a gully or when crossing a culvert diagonally as its chassis somehow would get twisted leaving one wheel in the air spinning hopelessly! In order for the car to move again it needed the assistance of one passenger to stand on the back fender and sometimes to jump in order for the offending wheel to grip and the car to move. While this was not a great problem, imagine doing it on a ditch full of muddy water!

Snapping the clutch cable was another “Kombi special”. As you can imagine, this cable needed to transmit my left foot’s instructions for quite a distance before it reached its destination so it was a weak feature and one that left us stranded. Luckily only once. Eventually, apart from learning to fit a new cable and carrying a spare, I learnt to operate without the clutch thanks to Joseph, one of the Muguga herdsmen that taught me how to start it and drive it without a clutch! I would engage second gear and then start the engine. The car will shudder, shake and jump forward until it got going. After a while you could change gears upwards if you knew the right speed. Changing downwards was not easy so stalling at stop signs was unavoidable! Although not a long-term solution, it would get you back home or to the mechanic.

On the side of its virtues, it had great ground clearance, a reliable engine that never had a problem despite its mileage and, being two of us, it also had lots of space to carry supplies and materials for my work as well as to take all of our gear on safari (and that is a lot and increasing!). Removing the second seat we could sleep inside if the circumstances so demanded. Its sliding door made for great game watching; particularly driving around lakes (with the door facing the lakeshore, of course) enabled superb birding.

I drove the car intensely between Tigoni, Nairobi and Muguga during the week and all over Kenya during the weekends. That particular morning I had come to Ranjini´s house to bring her some vegetables that I got for her in the Limuru market, close to Tigoni. The clutch cable had snapped while entering her house but then there was worse to come…

Ranjini worked as a scientist with the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development of the British Government attached to the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) in Muguga where she also lived. We had met while sharing accommodation at Muguga House, KARI´s visitors hostel [1].

“Clutchless” I crawled into her garden and did a jerk-stop. Although I carried a spare cable and I woud have been able to fix it then, it was not a short exercise as its calibration took a while and I needed to get back home. Further, we had plans to travel far in a couple of days so it needed proper fixing. So, having given Ranjini her shopping I assured her that I would be fine and left her rather worried by means of another jerk-start departure.

With my mind focussed on keeping the car going I forgot to fasten my seatbelt, an essential precaution when driving in Kenya. I was going very slowly down Ranjini’ s driveway when I decided to buckle up. I had never noticed that particular pine tree but I am sure that it had been there for many years and not moved much so it was not the guilty party! Neither had I seen its protuberant roots reaching towards the driveway. I still did not that day, I only felt them!

Everybody know that buckling up in movement is not recommended. It requires a few seconds of focusing your mind on the belt as well as some handless driving. A lot can happen over those few seconds. I remember feeling the left wheel rising over the roots and, as I tried to break, the car shuddered, stalled and stopped. However, in a bewildering feat, it gradually started to tilt towards mi side. My surprise quickly turned to panic and then resignation: the car was falling on me in slow motion.

My immediate thought was to try to stop it by sticking my hands through the window but -luckily for me- events happened faster than my thoughts and a thump followed by a shower of spanners, driving licence, car book, nuts and bolts and all things that one carries in a car’s shelf fell on me! The Kombi was now securely resting on its right side and only the door separated me from the ground that I could touch as my window was down.

It was an upset Bushsnob that emerged through the passenger’s window! Once outside I could contemplate my sublimely stupid achievement and promised myself never to try the seat belt trick while driving again. To say that I was also embarrassed when I walked back to Ranjini’s house is an understatement. She had just sent me off and closed the front door and I there I was again! I am sure that she thought I had forgotten something. When I told her what had happened, her expression changed dramatically! “Are you all right?” she asked with genuine concern. I told her that I was fine and invited her to come and have a look at my masterpiece!

We walked to the beginning of the driveway and we had a clear vision of the Kombi peacefully resting on its side! She gasped and while she recovered, I asked her if Njuguna, her gardener, was around. She immediately called him. He came and joined the unbelieving crowd expressing his regrets.

“Njuguna, please give me a hand to put it up again” I said estimating that most of the weight should be on the underside and therefore not too difficult to bring the car back to its normal position. Looking somehow doubtful he came along. Although I did not look at Ranjini, I am sure that her expression had changed to amusement! I could not blame her.

The effort required to put the car upright again was easier than I thought and the car bounced on its wheels as it got upright again. Apart from a broken side mirror and a few small dents and scratches on the side, the car was in good condition and driveable. I thanked Njuguna, said farewell to Ranjini, buckled-up, jerk-started it and drove off, still upset at my stupidity.

It was only weeks after the event, after I had replaced the mirror and got the dents painted that I could see the funny side of this rather freakish accident that even today I find rather incredible. I regret not having a picture of the car and the faces of my rescuers when they saw it to show it to you. It was all memorable and -in retrospect- quite funny!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/kenya-muguga1/

 

 

 

Buying a car

By the time I completed my FAO “Andre Mayer” assignment I was already involved in collaborating with other colleagues of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) on the on-going work on the resistance of cattle to tick infestations. With Robin we had achieved good results so ICIPE was interested in the continuation of my work. As I enjoyed both, being in Kenya and the work I decided to stay as a research scientist of the Tick Programme, still led by Matt. Some time afterwards Matt became Deputy Director until his untimely and sad passing on 3 August 1985.

The end of the FAO assignment not only meant writing a final report but also the return to the local FAO Office in Kenya of our beloved VW kombi. At the time we lived in Tigoni, 30 km far from Nairobi, and a car was a necessity for my wife to get to her job at the Commercial Office of the Embassy of Argentina in Nairobi and for me to get to Muguga from where I would be working. ICIPE did not offer cars to its employees and all cars were managed through a car pool that I would only be able to use for field trips when booked in advance.

n kinangop safari rally kombi

Our kombi during the rains.

We required a car that would not only be able to do our daily “rat race” but also to be able to take us and, more importantly, bring us back from the many safaris we had in mind! So, after considering the ideal and the possible we decided to go for a short-wheel base Series III Land Rover. Both series II and III Landies were common in Kenya at the time and I have had ample opportunity to test them during my many trips to Intona without a hitch.

We needed to find the car fast, before handing back our kombi so we immediately started to check the classified adverts in the Nairobi newspapers. For a few days we only saw vehicle offers that were either too expensive for us or suspiciously cheap to be in the desired condition. Eventually, after about a week of searching, we found an advert that offered one, very reasonably priced, considering that it was a 1975 model and that the price included a number of useful camping items!

We phoned the seller and agreed for a visit the following morning, as we were rather anxious to get the car. At the agreed time we were driving through Lenana road near the Hurlingham area looking for the car, when suddenly there it was, being washed by the house’s gardener. We drove in and walked straight to the car. The gardener greeted us and allowed to have a good look at it. It was a real beauty and I would not let it go. While I was sitting inside looking at the gear levers, another car drove in and I thought “Oh dear, there comes another buyer with more money!”.

It was a lady and she came straight towards us. “Who are you?” she said. Her tone rather unfriendly I thought. “I am interested in the Land Rover and, as we agreed with your husband, I believe, we came to have a look at it” I replied. “I am not married and the car is not for sale!” she replied still rather curtly. At that moment I realized that our anxiety to find the car we needed had got the best of us and, seeing the car, we drove in without looking at the house number! Feeling foolish (yes, another time!) and after apologizing profusely to the now calmer lady owner, we departed in haste. I regretted tha the gardener may have got an “ear full” because of our carelessness.

Apart from being upset at our mistake I was feeling rather disappointed as I really liked the car and I was fully aware that the possibilities that the one we were to see would be in a similar condition would be rather difficult. However, now carefully checking the house numbers, we drove a couple of blocks down the road and found the right house.

This time the owner was waiting for us and brought us to the car while telling us that they were selling it as they were returning to the UK and would not take the car as it was a left hand drive (LHD) model, designed to drive on the opposite side of the road. That was a disadvantage that explained its low price. Aware of this shortcoming we decided to look at it as we were there. It looked like a well-kept car, worth having.

My wife and I held a short consultation and decided that, considering our situation, the car would be suitable and arranged to get our mechanic to check it the following day. He confirmed that it was sound so we bought it. The price (Stg 1,500) included two petrol tanks and two jerry cans, various mechanical tools, a roof rack where a tailor-made mattress would fit perfectly and then it would be covered by a frame with a thick canvas that would be a veritable, though home-made, rooftop tent and one that would shelter us a few times on safari.

The issue of being a LHD never bothered us as, not being a fast car, the difficulties of overtaking at speed were rare. The car only misfired once after crossing a flooded river and its ignition system dried by the ubiquitous “fundi”, it went well again. I still have the jerry cans and the roof canvas. Unfortunately, the mattresses flew off undetected during one of the crossings of the Mara plains during an ill-fated journey during which -heavily loaded for some reason- also the back door failed as it popped open scattering all our belongings for a stretch of road until I managed to stop the car to collect them!

It was still a success at sale time when leaving Kenya in 1989 to go to Ethiopia. We sold for twice what we had paid for. The only time when we have made money for one of our used vehicles!

mabel on l rover...

My wife looking for footprints.

Land Rover Kakamega forest

Being cautious at a Kakamega forest bridge.

turkana safari 6

On the way to Koobi Fora in Turkana with Else and Paul.

turkana safari

Again, during the trip to Koobi Fora with Paul’s Land Rover.

turkana safari 3

Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora lake shore and being pulled out by Paul.

northern frontier 1

Through Amboseli dry lake. Well, rather wet that time, hence the picture to show this rather unusual situation!

Land Rover M Mara with Mc on top

The great experience of riding on the roof!

jj y mc en amboseli 8.45.15 PM

Young wife and Bushsnob posing on the Land Rover!

 

 

 

Kenya: Friends and foes[1]

After the initial rather intensive contact with Matt, a time of waiting followed while settling down at Muguga House. I saw Matt less often as he was busy running the Tick Programme. It was time for waiting, he had said earlier, as possible collaborators needed to return from their home leave when the European summer ended.

I was still busy! My attention was fully dedicated to my wife’s arrival as this offered some logistical issues both locally but also en route. The local issues were easier: obtaining a more comfortable bungalow at Muguga House and persuading a colleague to provide us with night transportation to and from the airport as her arrival was late at night. The issue of her Visa was a serious concern, though. For some reason better known to the intricate recesses of international diplomacy, Uruguayans get a Visa at the airport in both Kenya and South Africa, a rather convenient procedure. All very well then. Not so: my wife needed an overnight stopover in Johannesburg and needed a Visa for South Africa.

Flight connections were not as frequent as today. Nothing wrong with that you may think. However, I had learnt while in Kenya that, because of South Africa’s apartheid being in full swing at the time (1981), passengers arriving in Kenya with their passports stamped by the “racist regime” would be denied entrance and sent back! This was part of the blockade being imposed by all African countries to South Africa at the time.

I could expect no assistance from the Embassy of Uruguay in Kenya as there wasn’t one![2] There were only three Uruguayan embassies in Africa: Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. Aware of that there was no South African High Commission in Kenya I decided to first see the airline and then, if all else failed, to call the Uruguayan Embassy in South Africa seeking help. Cellphones did not exist and landlines between Muguga and Nairobi did not work very well so the best thing to do was to go to Nairobi to meet the airline, Varig at the time.

As her arrival was imminent I decided to travel to Nairobi the following day using public transport, no doubt encouraged by the experience I had on arrival[3]. The trip consisted in finding a way from Muguga to the main road and then another one to Nairobi, both ways.

The trip started well as I was lucky to find transport straightaway and got to the main road in good time. I joined a crowd of waiting passengers and, soon enough, a matatu[4] was waved down. It was a VW minibus, the brand that at the time dominated the minibus world in Kenya.

My hopes of a good ride in the front evaporated fast as this was apparently reserved for women and friends and currently overflowing. With moderate pushing and shuffling I entered, after paying the tout the necessary fare. “Not too bad” I thought while finding a seat in the back. “At least I will learn the dynamics of public transportation”. I also thought that the trip would have been fast as the bus was pretty full -by my standards- already. Nothing could have been more wrong! People needed to get out but many more got in until there were over twenty people in the back (I cannot say how many there were in the front seat as visibility was severely impaired!). Amazingly, we still accommodated a few more before we reached the Post Office stop at Nairobi city centre.

I literally popped out of the jam-packed bus and walked to the Varig office, almost on a “high” due to the sudden increase in oxygen levels, despite Nairobi’s high altitude! I hasten to add that, despite the large number of people and the scarcity of water in the rural areas, there was no more human body smell in the bus than in any minibus or lift in my country or the UK for that matter!

The Varig representative, fortunately, was not at all concerned by my predicament. “All you need to do is to ask your wife to get her Visa on a separate paper” she said. And she added, “She gets that paper stamped, makes sure that her passport is clean when she presents it to Immigration here”. Those were the tricks of countries under UN sanctions! The rather fast resolution of the Visa issue left me with time in my hands so I decided to look for Matt at ICIPE and I was lucky to get a most welcome return ride all the way to Muguga with him. He was rather surprised that I was so grateful and, after explaining the reasons, luckily he agreed to approach FAO in Nairobi to get me a vehicle. A rather good outcome from the matatu ride!

My wife’s travel went without hitches and I soon had her with me at Muguga House. Her arrival coincided with the return of most of the potential collaborators and I had the chance to meet some of them as well as do a lot of reading about tick and tick-borne diseases, working at the KARI library, an excellent source of historical research documents on the subject. I prepared a new work plan everyday, only to abandon it as my knowledge augmented!

Over the following days Matt took me for a round of official meetings to meet several people relevant to my future stay in Kenya. We had a rather difficult and cold meeting with the Government Veterinary Department and I could detect negative vibrations. In the end I was given the green light. Matt did not enjoy the meeting and he was rather short-tempered for the rest of the day. I, conversely, was happy that I was in Kenya to stay!

We also met the FAO Representative to update him on my plans as well as to plead for transport. Luckily, his response was positive and he asked the Administrator to identify a suitable vehicle for my use. This produced a VW Kombi, redundant from an earlier project, that was allocated to me for private as well as official use! An added advantage was that it had one of the most coveted items: a red -diplomatic- plate, a road opener. So we were finally mobile. The new car was ideal for us. Although it did not have 4WD, it had the necessary road clearance to take us all over Kenya.

Returning from a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve in the VW Kombi.

Returning from a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve in the VW Kombi.

At Muguga we met the Director of KEVRI, a highly qualified, very friendly and smooth Kenyan that was very welcoming. He was the Chairman of one of the two most popular soccer teams of Kenya and very involved with soccer in the country. We connected immediately when he learnt that I was coming from a country with such a good soccer pedigree and, although we talked about my future work and how collaboration could be strengthened, the main topic of our first meeting was soccer! Among the issues we covered was the possibility of me getting a Latin American coach for his team! This was the beginning of a friendly relationship through which I got very good support at work and also shared a few soccer matches with him.

The final of the “obligatory” meetings was with the Director of ICIPE. He was a highly educated and suave Kenyan Professor that was difficult to meet as he was constantly in meetings, running the Centre and meeting Donors and partners. He was pleased to see me and gave me valuable directions on what my situation as a Fellow within ICIPE would be and, of course, directed me to his Deputy for further issues. During the meeting he was very clear that I was awaited at Rusinga Island as ICIPE’s new research station at Mbita Point needed scientists settling down there. After the meeting was over, I learnt from Matt that the Director’s home area was precisely Western Kenya and that was the reason for his keenness for me to get there. Apparently the die was cast!

After these meetings I saw Matt less frequently for a while. Luckily Robin, the ICIPE ecologist, returned and I started going to the ICIPE laboratory at Muguga to be with him and learn. He was a very kind man, graduated in Oxford, who never refused to answer my questions and be of help. I was really lucky to find him and with him I learnt most of what I know about ticks and their ecology!

I had been in Kenya for about two months by now and I still did not know about what I would be doing so, concerned, I decided to ask Matt what was happening. The opportunity presented itself when he came to Muguga for a meeting. I managed to get a moment alone with him and asked him about the situation. Matt’s reply left me cold: “Julio, if you are not happy with the situation you tell me now and we cancel all arrangements and you go back to Uruguay and nothing happens”. I was shocked and worried but perhaps I had insisted a trifle too much or perhaps he was having a bad day as his mood sometimes seemed to swing. However, as the FAO Fellowship was all I had, I replied that I trusted him and would wait. I said: “Matt, the idea is not to leave but to let you know that I am worried for the delays”, I answered. “I understand your problem but this is Kenya and things work differently and at a slower pace. This should be clear to you from the start, otherwise you will not be able to work here” he said, in a way that was meant to close this uncomfortable encounter. I got his message and began my adjustment process to Kenya, Africa and to Matt’s ways and moods!

A few days later Matt came to see me at Muguga. He was in a jovial disposition. “Julio, Alan is back and we are meeting him now” he said. The meeting was timely and good. Alan was aware of my arrival and very keen to work with me as he saw the collaboration as very promising. The various work options were discussed and it also transpired that Matt had been under great pressure from the Government regarding my work as the latter had different ideas[5]. There had also been some administrative difficulties between FAO and ICIPE regarding the administration of the Fellowship’s funds. However, it had all been solved by now and we were, apparently, ready to go.

Matt was as idealistic as Alan was practical so they were a good combination: ideas and execution. I liked Alan from the start. During the meeting it was agreed that I would do some work at Muguga itself as well as field work. We would therefore visit Mbita Point and Rusinga Island with Matt. On the way back to Nairobi, we would take the opportunity to visit the ranch in the Transmara where Alan had his research on immunization. Finally, the return would be across the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, an added bonus.

It was agreed that, after that visit we would be in a better situation to take a decision on my future research work. In a way they kicked the ball forward! Nevertheless, I was happy to see movement at last. We agreed to leave as soon as possible.

[1] Follows “Kenya: Muguga”

[2] A complication that affected our lives and I will refer to in a future post.

[3] See “Africa – Arrival” in this blog.

[4] In Swahili, passenger minibuses or closed pick-ups.

[5] A couple of years later I learnt that the Kenyan Government had their own candidate for the FAO Fellowship that I got and my appointment did not go down well.

Africa! – Arrival

cropped-mt-kenya-way-to-shaba-1.jpg

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.

The first area of Kenya I saw: Lake Turkana. The picture was taken a few years later during a safari there.

The first area of Kenya I saw: Lake Turkana or the “Jade Sea”. The picture was taken a few years later during a safari there.

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.

One of the giraffes browsing at the airport!

One of the giraffes browsing at the airport!

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 gardens at the Fairview Hotel.

The gardens at the Fairview Hotel.

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!