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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Week 6: Meeting Ghandi and Gujarati Hospitality

Week 6: Meeting Ghandi, and Gujarati Hospitality

The next day in the farmhouse, we wake and are bombarded with a full English breakfast that really sets us up for the day. Over breakfast, we agree with the Dutch family to all go to the swamp together the next day. That way, they can drive us and we can split the charge of the expensive swamp guide, much to Mad Jo's annoyance. She is essentially losing money here. She attempts to convince us that the Dutch family's car is too small, but we ignore her. The Saiwa Swamp is famous for being the home of evolved antelope who are now semi-aquatic and spend their time submerged in water. It's also a good place to spot debrazza monkeys.

We head out with our guide from yesterday to a nearby waterfall. We take a matatu to the next village where we take a taxi up to the hills. There, we trek down towards the waterfall. We are high up in the green and tree-filled hills, and have a clear view of Mount Elgon in Uganda. As we start to descend towards the edge of the waterfall, my vertigo kicks in. I start to feel like the wind is pushing me to the edge and I am being dragged down. My legs are shaky and my mind is all over the place. Katie and the guide continue down to the edge, while I sit in a field of grazing cows and try to calm down a little. They return and we walk back to where we left the taxi, to find that the taxi is no longer there. Our guide loses his cool and starts cursing the driver, who is apparently a friend of his, who has driven off, leaving us stranded in the hills, next to a crazy Pentecostal church where they are singing in tongues, and a red soiled dirt track. Plus, the driver has driven off with the guide's only waterproof jacket. He is not happy. We trek 2 miles back up to the main road and wait for passing cars.

Some kids come out to play with us. Their mad dad soon joins them, wild dreads under his beret, slightly insane tone to his English accent, he is a great conversationalist. He keeps us company. He asks where I am from. I say, 'England' and he tells me he doesn't believe me. I don't look white. I run him through the gamut of my parent's origins in India, Kenya and Aden and he laughs and says that I could not say I am an international because it is obvious my heart is in England, so I must be English. He says, it's important to know where your heart feels most at home. He calls his brother-in-law, who has a taxi and he comes to pick us up and drive us back to the village where we got the original taxi from.

In the village, Katie and I decide to go back to the farmhouse and tell our guide to point us to the right matatu and leave us to it, as he lives near this village and it makes no sense to drop us off and come back again. He explains that he cannot bring us back early as Mad Jo will be angry. We tell him that either way it's our choice as it's our holiday. We say that we will go back but he should just go home. He says that Mad Jo will tell him off for allowing us to go home unaccompanied. We note aloud that she sounds like a difficult boss. His knowing smile speaks volumes. We decide to wait for the taxi driver who stranded us, so the guide can get his jacket back. We wait an hour and the guy eventually returns, leading to a tense showdown between the taxi driver and the guide. The guide, looking like he may lash out at the driver, catches sight of us in the corner of his eye, remembers himself, wrenches his jacket off the passenger seat and leads us away. It turns out the driver's excuse was nothing more than 'I didn't know if you would be coming back.'

Back at the farmhouse, we meet a new arrival, an American called Jenny travelling on her own. Mad Jo approaches Katie and orders her to make friends with Jenny, 'unless, of course, Nikesh values his privacy too much' she adds snidely. Jenny is travelling alone and came to the farmhouse on the same pretext we did, that it appeared close to the swamp. We learn that Jenny has been subjected to some Mad Jo-isms in the last hour. She has been banned from coming to dinner tonight as this will upset the table arrangements. She has also been forbidden from going to the swamp with the Dutch family and us the following day. This will not be appropriate. Mad Jo sends us over some tea and cake.

Over dinner, we learn more about Mad Jo. She is not in Saiwa out of choice. Her mum is ill, and so she has been summoned from the coast to help with the running of the farmhouse as her mum refuses to move. She has been here since 1997. She grew up in Kenya. Mad Jo's family were some of the original settlers. They are now the only ones left in the area and Mad Jo's father helped turn the swamp into national parkland. We understand her Victorian attitude to servitude and money a lot better now that we know that she is not in fact an ex-pat. She is a white colonialist, one of the originals and one of the last few remaining. This does not excuse the horrid attitude she carries towards her black staff.

We are able to sneak Jenny into the farmhouse for dinner on the pretext of her having tea and sitting by the warm fire. During dinner, the Dutch family invite Jenny to come with us all to the swamp. Mad Jo's face turns sour. We eat a hearty roast. As we all say our goodnights, Mad Jo, in an attempt to confuse Jenny, asks her what her plans are for the next day. Jenny states that she is going to the swamp. Mad Jo asks her how she plans on getting there as the Dutch family have said they have no room. She says she will manage, deciding that ignoring her is better than fighting her on her home turf.

Saturday morning and we are up at 6am to go see these semi-aquatic antelope. We all squeeze into the Dutch car. Mad Jo comes out to note surprise at all the tag-alongs. We go on a nature trail around the swamp, seeing rare monkeys and those fabled antelope and other creepy crawlies. It's an amazing experience. The swamp is quite a sight. We return to the farmhouse, pack up and settle up with Mad Jo. We discover that Mad Jo is charging us for all those benevolent cups of tea and pieces of cake. We inform her that we are all splitting the cost of our swamp guide three ways and we will be paying her by cheque as we do not have enough cash. She makes us add a handling charge, and a service charge for all her staff. She tries to test our honesty by writing the wrong number of beers down on the bill, before questioning us on how many we drank, just to see what we say. She catches me out, as I am unable to remember how many beers I have drunk, it being her responsibility to keep tabs not mine. We pay, worry about cash and head back into Kitale.

We end up staying at the Bongo Lodge, which is a dingy dirty tiny sweet little hotel next to our bus station in Kitale. Our room is right outside the huge water tank that seems to be in constant use, despite the lack of running water in our taps, showers or toilet. It is noisy every night and we lie awake listening to the cleaners work through the night, arguing and singing their ways through their twilight tasks. That night in Kitale, we want to head to the swankiest restaurant in town to watch the Miss Kitale 2006 competition. When we arrive though, it is dark and we're still shaken up by the effects of Kisumu so we end up going to a bar a few doors down from our hotel. There, they make a calypso and ska version of traditional Kenyan lingala music. People throw shapes, dancing all over the shop. Katie and I watch and learn a few things, laughing at the young men pointing their gyrating hips at Katie, thinking obviously that one thrust of their crotch at her and she would be theirs. Obviously not. As we leave, a drunk man tries to talk to us. Another drunk man tells him to leave the Westerners alone and they end up having a fight at the top of the steps as we leave quickly. Crazy town. Sunday, we spend mostly walking about museums and swimming.

Monday, we decide to head to Nairobi as we are running out of money and need to go to the bank. We wake up early and go to the bus station. Our hotel in Nairobi is in Westlands, which is where all the Asians and ex-pats live and is considerably safer than other areas. We worry slightly about arriving after dark but are anxious to just get there all the same. The bus journey is surprisingly painless. We have a bumpy 8 hours, but the sight of the Rift Valley, baboons, zebras and quiet mountain idylls are enough to keep us entertained till the suburbs of Nairobi. The bus is full of proud fathers and their pained sons all returning from a mass circumcision ceremony near Kitale. There are chickens trapped in boxes too. When we reach Nairobi, serendipity caresses our worries and we see our hotel on the side of the main road on our way in. We jump off the bus early and head up to the hotel. The hotel is manned by a security guard who locks the gate all the time. Taxis have to sign in and out of a book each time they enter. The hotel is perfunctory. We walk down to the Westlands Mall, ten minutes down the road. It is a big Western shopping mall, full of shoes and T-shirts and places to drink. We have returned to civilisation, it feels like. Am I that much of a city boy. I wonder, that I equate commerce with civility?

We wake up the next day and Katie has been struck with food poisoning. She is vomiting and toileting like no other. She cannot keep down water without throwing it back up. She is incredibly weak. I find a chemist and get her something to settle her stomach. Unfortunately, she soon throws the pills back up along with the water. We worry about dehydration. There is no way of hydrating her without her vomiting the water back up. Worried it may be something more serious, we take her to the hospital. We find there, that her medical insurance will only kick in if she is admitted. Otherwise, everything is going to cost money. I pay the 1000 shillings initial consultation charge. I panic a little. Luckily, the unluckily-named Dr Rajiv Ghandhi, a kind slightly goofy goateed young doctor takes pity on a slumped Katie and takes us straight through to be examined. We bypass an incredibly long line. Katie is eventually put on a saline drip, and they begin the process of re-hydrating her. However, when I take her blood samples to the lab for analysis, they demand money from me. I have none. I panic and call the aunt and uncle I stayed with when I first arrived. Dr Rajiv Ghandhi (lucky for some) and I discuss the money situation. We have none. Katie was taken ill before we could head to the bank. We are screwed. We will even need to pay for the saline drip. I panic. Katie is shivering. She has a slight fever. She is getting worse to get better. Shame I can't pay for it. The option we discuss is admitting her for a night so her medical insurance will cover everything. She agrees that this is best. We are otherwise looking at a fee of 10k shillings.

When the decision is taken to admit her, I become three people all at once: the worrywort, the signature courier (carrying an endless number of forms between the ill and the administration) and the loving fiancé.

My aunt and uncle arrive and meet Katie for the first time, lying half-asleep on a gurney, on her second saline drip and turning from blue to red again. They invite us to stay with them. We agree. First things first, my uncle and I go back to my hotel and pack up our stuff. My adventuring spirit has broken by constant disaster over the past 10 days, and I am ready to be embraced back into the Gujarati bosom. We take our stuff to my aunt and uncle's house. I pack an overnight bag for Katie and return to the hospital. We walk to her ward, where she is put at the back of the ward where all the beds are empty. It's deathly quiet and eerie and we asked to be moved to where there is people. I stay with her. She is starting to feel better. She feels hungry. The doctors have confirmed it was a severe case of food poisoning and dehydration and not malaria. We breathe a sigh of relief. We have to, though, go through the admissions bit now. I stay with her while she eats her first meal in 24 hours: chips and soup. We pay cards and then I return to my aunt's house for a Gujarati vegetarian feast. I eat heartily, warm in the bosom of Gujarati hospitality. I've come full circle to the creature comforts I've always had and the familiar glow of family life.

My parents phone, worried. My dad tells me he told me so when I tell him about our adventures. "I told you this was a lawless country," he says. My grandparents also phone to check on Katie. She is fast asleep three miles down the road.

The next day, I am anxious to see her. The doctors have told her she should be out today. I head over to the hospital an hour before visiting hours start. I lie and say I am her husband so they'll let me in. She is fine and glowing, feeling nearly back to normal. There have been more saline drips and blood tests during the night. It appears this hospital is leaving nothing to chance. We spend a lazy day talking and playing cards and sitting outside in the sunshine waiting until 4 when she will be discharged. This is the most time we have spent together since she left for Kenya in August. I leave for the lunch period when visitors are not allowed. I head to a mall nearby and doing some Christmas shopping. I return and am told by the security guard that my constant presence by Katie's bedside is upsetting some of the other patients. Katie is in a female-only ward and they were perturbed when I sat at the end of her bed to play cards with her. I sit on a chair facing Katie's bed, not moving my head at all to my surroundings. We wait 2 hours for the doctor to discharge Katie. He eventually comes and we leave, marvelling at how trying our holiday has been and how we haven't explored Nairobi much and how un-Christmassy we feel. We walk outside to wait for my uncle to pick us up and find 10 members of staff all decorating Christmas trees on the front-lawn with tinsel and lights and baubles and ding dong merrily on high… our festive faith is momentarily restored – it's a Christmas miracle.

Our bad luck prevails though when our uncle's car, on our return journey, leaks all its petrol out on the road and we break down a mile from home.

The next day, we spend in Nairobi, doing some museum sight-seeing, some recuperating and some shopping. We feel a little more Christmassy now. We try to soak up the town, going to a display of modern Kenyan art. We buy some bits and bobs and end our day eating dhal and rice and marvelling at a day spent like a typical holiday should be.

It's Christmas in a few days and it's the end of our holiday. We are grateful to my aunt and uncle for their amazing hospitality and the rescue job they did for us. We hope that our return to Mombasa will signal the end of our bad luck, and all our Christmas presents from our families and friends will have arrived safely and Christmas will be a relatively normal affair, without muggers, hospitalisations, car troubles and feelings of paranoia.

Next week: some tropical festive fun, our run of bad luck continues, and more bent coppers…


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