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Friday, December 29, 2006

Week 7: Jingle Bells, Batman Smells...

Week 7: Jingle Bells, Batman Smells

We arrive back in Mombasa on Friday morning and immediately get down to the task of retrieving our Christmas presents from the Kenyan post office (see Week 5 for a run down of the horrific procedure we have to endure every time we do this). We retrieve our parcels, and head back to the car to come home and feel Christmassy.

In central Mombasa, the main parking spaces line the middle of the road, like a spine of parked cars. We try to reverse out of the middle of the road so we can leave. A boy helps us by stopping oncoming traffic and ushers us out when appropriate. A matatu, thinking it has spied a gap in the traffic, cuts in front of the boy helping us and it drives into the back of our car. We are momentarily confused as to what has happened. Katie quickly re-parks her car and I get out to inspect the damage. The matatu, a beaten up thing, has been parked on the side of the road, and the driver is ushering off his passengers, while the conductor inspects the damage done. We are unsure of what has happened at this point. We think it may have been our fault. A copper approaches us and tells us we have caused an accident. The ‘law’man tells us we need to immediately settle this matter privately with the matatu driver or he will have to get involved and impound the car. We tell him that we are insured. He demands to see our papers. Every time I try to get involved, he hushes me and speaks to the white driver, Katie. We say that we are insured and that we wish to get the insurance details of the matatu driver, knowing that they are probably not insured. There is negligible damage to their matatu. Where the damage we have caused ends and pre-existing cuts and scrapes begins is not obvious. We wonder whether we have done any damage at all. They still insist we have caused a potentially dangerous accident. The policeman tells us that regardless of our insurance, it is better to sort this out privately, as for claiming insurance we will have to obtain a police report, from him, and pay for it, amongst other administrative charges. And he will have to impound the car. He takes his leave so we can negotiate with the matatu driver. The driver asks for 1500 shillings (a tenner) for the damage. It may not sound like much, and the fact that he is asking for such a low amount means that there probably isn’t that much damage and they want to scare some beer money out of the ‘rich’ Westerners.

A crowd of staring children gather. We negotiate. They demand money. We demand their insurance details. We are locked against each other. We do not want to give them cash and they do not want to give us their insurance details. A completely unnecessary fuss is made and we are fighting a losing battle because the policeman hovers in the background, waiting for a private settlement. More bystanders continue to stare, menacingly and Katie is visibly upset, to the point where it is just easier to give them the money to go away, rather than try to pursue the course of what is true and just and procedure. I shove the money into the driver’s top pocket angrily and take my sunglasses off to glare at him. ‘Merry Christmas, you horrible man’ I hiss at him and he walks off, smiling at his personal victory, in the direction of the bystanding police officer. To give him his thirty pieces no doubt. We drive away, upset and shaken. It is only through replaying the event later that we realise we have been had. We were vulnerable and confused and we got taken for a ride. We need to toughen up, or be eaten up here.

It puts a dampener on the rest of the day, and we lose our festive cheer… again. What a trying few weeks it has been. Well, NWA said the be all and end all of my opinions about the police, and my mum reads this so I will spare you the profanities they use. The rest of the day we spend trying to gather up some Christmas cheer. Thousands of miles away from our loved ones, in the land of crap robbers, unwashed vegetables and bent coppers, means we are simply NOT having a wonderful Christmas time.

On Saturday, I perform at the local Cinemax complex, at a café. Two weeks ago, when I had arranged the gig, the venue had assured me of a sound system. When I arrive to soundcheck, there is nothing there beyond a stereo clamped to the wall behind the counter. I am to perform outside, and unfortunately, the system will not move. I am whisked away to a nearby music shop, where we are refused permission to hire equipment out.

When the gig actually arrives, we faff about with the microphone for about 30 minutes, trying different ways of holding it up and positioning it before settling on taping it to a hookah pipe. Then, when I go to use the microphone, as it is cordless, it is too far from its receiver, and my words keep cutting out. I give up and perform anyway. My acoustic guitar and the power of my voice, compete with coffee drinkers, cinema-revellers, and boy racers testing out their speakers with dancehall beats. It is nearly a disaster but luckily, I have an attentive audience for the first song. By the third song, I have lost them, because only the table directly in front of me can hear me. I try walking around and singing, which people appreciate, but makes me feel like a performing monkey. Eventually, I give up and sit down, dejected… That dream of being Kenya’s next big star is momentarily crushed.

On Sunday, we travel up to the impossible posh Serena Beach Hotel to meet a relative who mum has sent a care package with. She has included my post (a bunch of bills – great), a weekend broadsheet (a delectable read), some proper mince pies and our presents. My mum is made honorary queen for the day. We have a quiet lunch with my relatives and their friends at the beach resort. My relative was an 11 year old refugee from Uganda in the 70’s when Idi Amin rose to power, and it was interesting to hear him effuse goodwill and passion for Britain and good old fashioned Britishness.

On Christmas day itself, I wake stupidly early, filling myself with as much excitement as I can muster. Katie and I are both cheer sections for the spirit of Christmas today, for each other. With no Christmas holiday saturation around us, it is imperative we keep our spirits up all day. Luckily, our spirits are raised when we see Santa has left us some stockings. Santa has left me a stocking full of men’s hygiene products. Santa thinks I smell obviously. We phone both our parents at 7am their time, and wake both sets up from their Christmas Eve hangovers. This is enough minor revenge for all those weekends they have forced us out of bed at unnecessary times. We swap presents. Katie has bought me a toaster, and I have bought her a kettle… aren’t we thoughtful? We celebrate with tea and toast and open up presents from home. At midday, I light the barbeques and we set about having a barbeque roast. It is semi-successful, despite the roast potatoes falling in the charcoal as we lift them off. Despite our lack of oven, we manage to have stuffing, roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy. It is a Christmas miracle. We are triumphing against the elements. After some board games, we decide to take a walk down to the beach to limber us up for the evening, where we will go to the next building and eat more barbeque with the Bombay-ite deputy head and his wife. A walk on the beach brings more phonecalls from home. We return to the flat for dusk, and more phonecalls from home come.

We head over to the deputy head’s house with our smouldering barbeques and I try to reignite them with a dribble of meths. A bystander shouts: ‘Get one of the guards to light it. That’s what these Africans are there for! They’ll have it up for you in 5 minutes! They’re masters!’ I’m sure there’s a compliment in there somewhere. A guard is summoned while I trooper on with trying to do it myself. The guard comes anyway, and has a superbly fierce barbeque lit in about ten minutes. I am amazed and a little emasculated. Here I am, in Africa, trying to be the alpha-male: all-barbequeing, all-footballing man, and someone betters me in 10 minutes flat. I do learn some barbeque tips from this African genius. The bystander gives me a look to say, ‘why try when they’re here for your beck and call?’ and I note loudly that we should take the guard some chicken for his effort.

More food is cooked. This time, we have barbequed red snapper and tandoori chicken, and we find new ways to shove it all in. Our gracious hosts keep loading our plates up or noting we have no drink or food, and by the end, we’re double the size. We return home, tired but contented in a surprisingly pleasant Christmas so far from home.

The rest of the week we spend at the pool, reading books, playing our new board games and working out an exit plan for Kenya. The sun occasionally rears its head. I catch a nasty cold and spend the rest of the week in bed. The perfect end to our Christmas holidays.

See you in 07.


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