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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Week 5: Bent Coppers and Bungling Robbers

Week 5: Bent Coppers and Bungling Robbers

We are driving over new Nyali Bridge when a copper spots the Asian guy in the new Japanese car with two white girls, one of which is blonde and he smells money. He pulls us over. The cop walks around the car trying to find something wrong, looking for something to cause a fuss about. He notices that the backseat passenger does not have her seatbelt on. He motions for us to wind down our windows. He demands to know why she is not wearing her seatbelt. We apologise and she hastily puts it on. He demands to know what possessed her to think she could get away with not wearing her seatbelt. We apologise. He asks for the driver's licence. The driver does not have her licence with her.

"Well, that is your second mistake," grins the red-toothed leering man as he leans into my window and looks the blonde driver up and down. "For two mistakes, I am afraid I will have to impound your car. What do you say to that?" We all apologise once more, desperate to get out of here. He ushers us to shut up and speaks directly to the driver. "How will you get out of this?" he asks. The driver, flustered, apologises once more. The woman in the back bellows that he wants money. The driver says that she is happy to go to the station with the copper if need be and fill out any necessary paperwork. The copper shakes his head and says, "For two mistakes, I have decided to forgive you. How will you show your gratitude?" The driver says that she can apologise again, that is all she is prepared to do. The copper says, "I have already forgiven you. You have to give me something to show your gratitude. How much gratitude will you give me?" We are all furious at his insinuation. Every time a non-driver tries to speak, he shuts us up and stares at the driver. "Two thousand shillings (£20)?" she offers. He says that this is low for two mistakes. She says, well, we can go to the station. He motions to get into the car and then stops, telling us we will need to pay more if we go to the police station and there will be a lot of paperwork. It is easier to sort it out now, but two thousand is too low. We settled on 3000 and drive off, our cheeks burning with shame and anger.

I don't know who I'm more afraid of here, the cops or the robbers. Either way, I don't want to get into trouble with either one.

We drive into Mombasa to the post office. This is how the post office works when you receive a package. You get a yellow slip in your letterbox telling you to go and collect the package. You go on down to the post office, give your yellow slip and ID to one person. They retrieve the package, you check the address and name on the front and sit down. You are then called by another person, who gets you to open the package in front of them (imagine if this is presents or pants, or in our case this occasion, both) while they write down and itemise everything you receive. They then, using the power of imaginary mathematics, work out how much duty you should pay on the items you have received and give you a bill. Your package is taken away from you. You are ushered into a room where you present the bill. They explain to you that the duty you owe them is the amount on the bill. You sign somewhere to prove you understand this. You then go and stand in the cashier queue and give them the bill. They write you a new bill and take your money. You are paying to receive presents and gifts and care packages your friends and family have already spent a fortune sending around the world to you. They stamp your bill, the receipt they have just given you and a copy of the original yellow slip you came in with and give them back to you. You take these pieces of paper back to the original person you started with and he writes your passport number on each bit of paper. You give him 70 shillings each per parcel for handling. He writes you a receipt for the 70 shillings. You then get to take your package and go home and wonder what the point of having a birthday or Christmas is while trying to enjoy the contents of the package, but instead you sit in disappointment, your spirit broken by bureaucratic procedure and paperwork.

The day after Katie finishes for the Christmas holidays we fly to Nairobi and from Nairobi (or Nairobbery – as a friend referred to it once) we catch an incredibly bumpy 7 hour bus to Kisumu on Lake Victoria in the Western Highlands of Kenya. The bus driver is fast and reckless and the roads are worn and feckless. The roads are terrible. We shake and rattle and roll with every nut and bolt holding the bus barely together. What at first feels like a thorough back massage starts to eventually feel like systematic bodily trauma. The journey is fun though. We drive through the Rift Valley, see giraffes and zebras and try to read despite the shaky journey. We arrive in Kisumu, tired and worn and unused to being still. I retrieve our backpack from the boot of the bus. Katie and I look around for a taxi. The bus driver glares at me and screams at me in Swahili, like I have done something wrong. I shrug at him dumbly. I cannot help him. We walk out of the bus station towards the main road assuming we will find a taxi to our hotel.

"OI! STOP IT! YOU CAN'T DO THAT!" I hear a scream behind me and whirl round to find a young boy trying to rip Katie's handbag from around her head. The bag is around her neck so every time he yanks it fiercely, he pulls her towards him, so savagely that she bites him on the nose. I run to her aid, grab the bag and wrestle it from his hands. He grunts and looks fierce. Katie starts to acquiesce and tries to take it off from around her head as he is getting nowhere yanking it off her. He continues to pull though. I continue to wrench it back, on autopilot. A crowd gathers and stares. The boy drops the bag into my hand, punches me square in my beautiful nose and runs off. A security guard blows a whistle and runs off after him.

Katie and I walk off quickly trying to find a taxi. The gathering crowd looks shocked. One asks if we are okay. We scream that we are fine and that they should have helped us. My nose is bleeding freely all over my face and the back of my throat is tinged with blood. Katie and I walk off. The curb is steep and she trips, twisting her ankle as she falls off the curb. A man asks if we need help finding a tuk-tuk. He leads us in the direction we were walking in, down the deserted main road. We eventually find a tuk-tuk. My face is covered in blood. My beautiful nose throbs. The tuk-tuk driver drives us two streets to our hotel and overcharges us in our hour of need. Opportunism. Thanks. We address my nose and Katie's ankle with some ice and eat and marvel at our luck that he didn't have a knife or worse and also that he didn't get the bag, which contained all Katie's money and passport and other useful bits.

I read the Lonely Planet's dangers and annoyances section about Kisumu. It warns us against steep curbs and glue-sniffing purse-snatchers. Why oh why did I gloss over that bit?

Our night is fraught with fear and paranoia. Should we go home? Are we safe? Is everyone under suspicion? All those friendly warnings our paranoid Asian friends gave us, are they all true? Of course, walking out of a bus station lamenting your disorientation and the lack of taxis and wearing a big Western tourist backpack does scream vulnerable but still, why us? We feel like victims.

The next day we get up feeling miserable. Both of us have dreamt about being attacked by unknown forces. I go downstairs to enquire about buses back to Nairobi as we are considering just going home. As I relate our tale to a worried receptionist, an American lady who overheard approaches us and tells me she is a relief nurse and will look at Katie's ankle and my nose. My nose is fine, just emotionally scarred. Katie has twisted her ankle. The nurse dresses the ankle and gives her some tiger balm to ease the swelling. We decide we need to regain our adventurous mojo so take a walk around the town in the daylight in an attempt to demystify the air of dark forces by facing them in the daylight. Unfortunately, it is foggy and cold and everyone stares at us menacingly (actually, or in our heads, we never quite decide). Kids follow us, sucking on bottles of booze, their eyes glazed and fiercely red. We do not like this place. We contemplate going home the next day. Katie suggests a field trip out of the town to a fishing village on Lake Victoria to raise our spirits, as we cannot go back today. We hop in a taxi and go to Dunga, by Hippo Point, on Lake Victoria.

Dunga is tiny and thin, on a long stretch of road. People are surprised to see Western faces pass through and all look at us. The kids are fascinated and smile at us, shouting 'how are you?' as we walk past. We cut up the coast of the Lake towards a beach resort where we are spotted by a bunch of playing kids. Two of them stop, fixated by Katie and they run up to her. They stop in front of her and she greets them. They touch her skin, fascinated by its whiteness. One of them rubs a mole on her arm. One kid is playful funny and full of giggles. The other has a distended stomach, bites all over his face and legs and an unhappy grimace. He is extremely clingy. He takes to Katie the most and grabs her little finger with his entire small hand. The other kid does the same with her other hand and they walk with us as we walk to the beach resort. Everyone we pass laughs at them, obviously knowing who they belong to. There is no fear here, like in Britain where we fear the paedos and the crack so we lock our children up in front of playstations and sky boxes. Here, children are free and if they want to escort two fearful Westerners to a hotel on the Lake, then that's what they will do. The children are silent as we walk. The unhappy kid eventually grabs my little finger as well and we become a huge walking family. Our fears start to dissipate. These children are melting our hearts. I consider doing a Madonna. When we arrive at our destination, it takes some effort to disconnect ourselves from the kids. We consider taking them inside for a snack but disapproving looks from the doorman make them scarper. We have a drink inside.

Later, we go up to Hippo Point on Lake Victoria, which is the best place to see hippos in this part of the lake. We get on a rickety wooden boat with some other Kenyan tourists and a man I swear to this day was Sir David Attenborough, and we paddle out on to the Lake. Katie and I are careful to try not get too splashed by the water as it is notorious for being full of snail-parasites. We see hippos and monkeys and fishermen. A hippo rears its head not far from the boat and starts to give it chase, giving us a momentary panic. Everyone, it seems, is out to get us. Through conversation with one of the guides on the boat, we discover that Kisumu is changing. It used to be a thriving port town, but now there is nothing and children, with no hope of future employment, are turning more and more to robbery. He tells us of two incidents of vigilante justice in the last year: One, where a would-be mugger was shot by the guy he was trying to mug. Another, where a would-be mugger tried to mug a Japanese tourist. The Japanese tourist broke his arm first and then gave him the money anyway. That's gangster. The guide marvels at our luck that the would-be mugger didn't have a knife or worse. The sun shines off Lake Victoria as we sail about, the water itself is brown with mud and contains potentially violent hippos. We return to land.

The next day, Thursday, we check out of our hotel and drive up with a taxi driver to Kitale in the north. Our taxi driver for the day yesterday, it turns out, was planning to drive up to Kitale anyway to take his son there for Christmas. Our temporary fear of buses and matatus means that we offer to pay his petrol and a little extra to go with him. He agrees. As we drive out of Kisumu, we drive past an incident of mob rule. A would-be mugger is being beaten by a huge crowd of people. It is a horrible sight, one of real violence and contempt. I cannot watch. We wonder whether to call the police, until we see them idly standing by. Mob rule is more disturbing than actual mugging. Although, it does make me wonder whether petty theft is the crime of choice for Kisumu. None of them seem any good at it.

The drive to Kitale is slow. We are rising up and up into the Western Highlands and it is getting colder and colder. Along the way, we drive through 10 separate police check-points. We are stopped at 3 different ones, so the police can walk around the car and spot something wrong. Only once does a policeman spot something wrong with the licence plates. Our driver has all the correct official paperwork showing why there is a problem with the licence plates and that it Is in the process of getting sorted. The policeman causes a fuss though, and in the end, for the sake of ease, the driver gives him some money to not be difficult and we drive on. The driver notes to us that even when you are in the right, if they want to cause a problem they will, the easiest option is to always just give them money and move on. They can cause a fuss about anything, and they will. It makes you not want to get in trouble here. As I said before, who would you rather? The cops or the robbers?

In Kitale, we are dropped and we find transportation to 20 km out of Kitale, a farmhouse near a swamp we are visiting. The farmhouse is owned by Mad Jo's mum. Mad Jo's mum is away so we deal with Mad Jo. An eccentric 50 year old ex-pat spinster with a growth defect on his arm, a shrill voice and a career in meddling. She is short with wild stringy mousy blonde hair. She is bossy and confusing and commanding and irritating all at once. She greets us with a barrage of confusion about where we will be sleeping. She has so far neglected to send us a current tariff for staying with her, so when we arrive and find out how expensive the rooms are, we immediately downgrade ourselves to a tent at the back. We also find out that the farmhouse is not walking distance from the swamp, as inferred in our guidebook, but a good 6km away. The tariff also hints at hidden costs. She offers us tea and cake, which we accept. She is gracious and we are thirsty. She tells us she will only accept cash as cheque is useless. We worry about how much cash we have left. She coerces us into paying one of her guides (but paying him through our final bill, so she can take her cut obviously) on taking us for a walk. We are a bit annoyed at her subtle coercion but it ends up being an entertaining walk.

We walk. The guide tries to flirt awkwardly with Katie. She laughs it off. He tells me about his love for Wayne Rooney. We meet all the local children, who run up to us to say 'how are you?' and beg us to take their photo, which we do and show them the results immediately on the camera screen. They are amazed and shriek that they are now INSIDE THE CAMERA. We see fields of tea plants and fields of guava and avocado trees and coffee plant orchards and are amazed that this stuff is just there, growing. The kids keep coming, thick and fast, fascinated with Katie's skin. When she replies to their 'how are yous' we find that they cannot reply, so we switch to our pidgin Swahili and they are amaze that we speak their language. Later Mad Jo chides the guide for not shooing away the children and we defend him, saying it was the best part of the whole experience. We have our first hot showers in months and go up to her farmhouse for our expensive half-board dinners. She puts on a huge three course spread. There is oodles of food. She has three smiley Kenyan servants who she commands through the use of a bell on the table that she rings. We find it embarrassing, as do the other guests, an amiable Dutch family, staying there. We all smile at the servants and try to communicate to them with our eyes and our 'thank yous' and 'pleases' that we're sorry she's so bossy, and a bit Victorian England in her treatment of them. No one should be summoned by bell.

We go to sleep that night, freezing, with hot water bottles, outside with the creepy crawlies. I am cold and so is Katie and we huddle in one of the tent's single beds, shivering and trying to fall asleep in the pitch black surroundings…


NEXT WEEK: Nairobbery, hospitals and shopping!


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