Monday, 21 February 2011

You’ll be able to handle it better

Kenya, Nairobi, 7-8 February 2011 

The Kenyan immigration form is A4 (letter) size and looks as if it has been produced by a rookie as a homework assignment.  I rather liked it, although was disappointed not to see a question enquiring as to whether I was entering the country with the nefarious intentions of terrorism, crime, or political espionage.  Whenever I see such a question I’m often tempted to tick yes, and scrawl viva la revolution! in the margin.  Then I remember that I’m no real fan of latex, have difficulty touching my toes at the best of times, and bashfully complete the rest of the form (Sex? Yes please! Male).
Forms completed properly and fingerprints scanned (a US border guard once gave me the back-handed compliment that I had very clear fingerprints, i.e. didn’t do a proper man’s job), the smiling and joking Kenyan immigration officials slapped in our visas, and sent us on our way with the decree to ‘have fun’.   I locked myself in the nearest cubicle so I could slip the ridiculous wad of cash we had on us into a Ziploc bag, and then into a tubigrip bandage pulled tight over by yet-to-decompress thigh.  With 140ish Kenyan Shillings to the pound this isn’t as investment banker as it sounds, and I figured that if a would-be assailant wanted to get that close to my nether regions after a nine hour flight they deserved compensation.

Standing in the arrivals hall was the smiling and diminutive Geoffrey – director of the organisation we’d come to work with, Watoto Wa Baraka, more of both later.  Bags manhandled into his car, we drove out of the airport and onto the motorway, passing a single zebra grazing in the central reservation – an official representative of the Kenyan safari industry welcoming committee I suspect – and bounced our way through the dark, dusty, and dilapidated Nairobi roads, before pulling into our hotel for the night. 

Now, over the years I have made it my mission to successfully decode Helen’s facial expressions, and this time I filed through the mental rolodex (discarding ‘what you’re doing makes me physically sick’ and ‘shut up, I’m eating’) before pulling out ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding me’.  Standing before us was a three storey building whose entire ground floor was boarded up, and a surprised looking night guard, with his own facial expression that said ‘nope, ‘fraid not’.  Fortunately the first floor improved, and although basic and falling apart, our accommodation for the night was just the ticket, and selected by Geoffrey on purpose I think to give our molly-cuddled western sensibilities a short, sharp, but safe shock (apologies, my ‘s’ key got jammed with some mango juice – sweet, sweet succulent, salacious mango, nmm nmm).

After a restorative ciggie on the concrete balcony, taking in the rubbish dump vista and the orchestra of howling street dogs, I decided I liked this place.  I’ve flown into new cities all over the world, been driven entranced through humid streets teeming with new and exciting life, and been deposited into the air conditioned lobbies of international chain hotels.  Now, I love fresh sheets, mints on the pillow, free biros and ‘think of our balance sheet the environment before asking for your towels to be washed’ stickers as much as the next (business) man.  But what I love more is feeling like you’ve arrived somewhere new, of having your assuredness and cynicism karate-chopped out of you. The most visceral night I’ve ever spent in a new city was in a backpackers hostel in Kuala Lumpar’s Chinatown district, sitting on its cramped balcony in the middle of the night (as my jet-lag immune buddy Tom slumbered peacefully in our dorm), chain smoking duty frees, reading a book I’d picked up from the hostel’s small collection, and watching as the city turned from night into a flurry of early morning activity.  I remember feeling nervous and elated at the same time, with that floaty other-worldly sensation that only a cocktail of one part jet-lag to two parts new city can give you.  

Settled in, and us chugging down on bottles of water, Geoffrey explained his plans for us over the next seven weeks.  ‘For the final three weeks I’d like you to work in our established orphanage in Makuyu’ he said, ‘but for the first month we need help in our new centre near Mithini’. ‘Sure’, we said, being none the wiser about either, save for reading about the organisation and its work on their website and Facebook page.  It was then that he uttered a phrase that, on the one hand, stroked our ego, and on the other, dumped a cold bucket of apprehension over our heads – ‘it’s pretty basic, but I thought you two were older, more experienced, that you’d be able to handle it better’.  With that he was gone until morning, leaving me thinking ‘geez, this guy should run for office, he’s good’.  He’d left us wanting more.  And, boy, were we about to get it. 

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