A Travellerspoint blog

July 2009

Bang-Bang went the policeman's gun

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A few days ago, an English couple on their last night in Africa who I have met a couple of times in Nairobi, came home from the city centre with a local friend around 9pm with the story that they had been shot at. They were fine, if slightly rattled, and it just went down as a crazy end to their African stay.

Though I obviously wasn't around then to compare, something which sounds extremely similar happened to me last night and I am now wondering if it is a regular occurrence. I had been talking with some acquaintances in a city coffee shop, and as a few of us were heading in the same direction i decided to get a matatu with them. It is the first time in Nairobi that I have caught a matatu after dark, normally preferring the relative extra theoretical safety of a taxi.

As we sat in the matatu waiting for the last few seats to be filled, suddenly a huge commotion kicked off a few metres away. I didn't understand a word of the shouting, but my companions started to look slightly worried. The matatu driver, whether by coincidence or not, decided to turn the van around in preparation for departure. Exactly what happened next, I am not sure. But a policeman suddenly appeared and banged on the passenger door. Then somebody (i think the conductor) started shouting 'DRIVE – DRIVE'.

The policeman then raised his gun in the air and fired straight up. People on the street suddenly started screaming and running in all directions, and the driver did as he had been ordered, and we took off to screeching tires and smoke. Through the open window, I watched the policeman lower his rifle, point in our direction and fire several times in the vague direction of our tires. As I was sitting on the back seat above one of the rear wheels, i wa not necessarily the happiest at this new development.

The sound of crunching metal told us that at least one shot hit the matatu somewhere, and we swerved badly, but we kept driving at speeds and levels of recklessness that are rare even in Nairobi. The passengers all had their heads down and were simultaneously wondering what the heck was going on, whilst we pretty much all expected to die horribly and shortly in a fire ball of mashed matatu, seeing as we were speeding horrifically down the wrong side of a dual carriageway swerving crazily around onrushing matatu's, and with the expectation of at least one shot out tire: The ride levels were definitely not up to their normal (poor) levels.

A kilometre of so later on, the driver calmed down, we rejoined the correct side of the traffic, and the conductor started collecting our fares. In an odd silence (this is the only matatu i have been on in the city without a booming sound system playing) we then proceeded as normal.

When i got out, I was surprised to see all tires in place, although there was an ugly hole in the rear corner of the van just below where I had been sitting, and a very definite liquid leak trailing along the road. We had been luckier than I had realised at first. Slightly shaken, I walked the last few metres home, still none the wiser as to what the heck had just occurred. Danged it. I had made it to July without breaking my New Year's resolution, which is almost an all-time best.

I really need to finally get out of this damned city, and sharpish.

Posted by Gelli 01:12 Archived in Kenya Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The backpacker circle of help

Traveling is a strange thing. It can make you do things that you would never do in similar situations at home. Like lend somebody you met barely 24hours previously - and whose name you can't even remember - 250usd to fly to a foreign country. I mean, if somebody i met in the pub the previous evening asked me something similar (and for a sum even as small as 20usd, say) I would never dream of lending the money.

And yet that is pretty much exactly what I did in Nairobi to assist two Americans, Bryan and Andrea. As i've previously mentioned, traveling is a strange thing, but one of the more interesting aspects of it is the networking and self-help side of the backpacking circuit. Though it happens everywhere, in general terms the less developed and traveled (in backpacking terms), the more crucial the circuit is.

For want of a better way of explaining it, it basically means that everybody helps anybody else. If you stay in a hostel, anybody who has been there for longer than a couple of days pretty much instantly becomes the information point of choice for newly arrived travelers: What to see, what to do, where not to go, which bus to take, how much to pay for pretty much anything, how to avoid being scammed and any other small local tips that might be useful all get passed along. Sometimes, and especially in areas where potential routes are fairly limited, this can be exchanged for similar information for the place that they have just come from and where you are heading. As somebody that travels quite allot and is a regular returnee to many places, I am used to being the point of reference. Most of the time, I have no problem with it but in some cases in the past I have been actively known to lie and pretend that I am a random newbie who has never visited, just to get a bit of peace or talk about something else. As i've been in Nairobi for most of the past 3months, i'm the obvious point of reference here: Even the staff are now asking me about some things. It is the sort of thing that is not organised. it just happens - when you meet somebody in a hostel, the first 4 pieces of info that tend to get exchanged are 'what's your name', 'where are you from', 'how long have you been here (or where have you come from to new arrivals)' and 'what are you doing here'. Follow ups come from those responses. And of the four, asking a name is by far the most optional of the questions.

That, in itself is a great ad-hoc system and a crucial source of information to backpackers, especially on roads less traveled. But the great thing is how it cranks up if people have difficulties. When I had my wallet stolen back in Romania in 2005, for example, any number of random strangers helped me out in different ways – helping me look through rubbish bins (in case it had been chucked), giving me a phone card, letting me stay for free, buying me food and booze. One girl who I had known vaguely for a day or so and was sick at the time, gave me some euros she had in her pocket, just like that. Her name is Maaret, and as i'm sure any person stupid enough to read this drivel regularly will be recall, she has since appeared regularly throughout this African tale, even though she left the following day and we didn't even exchange email contacts at the time, let alone have any expectation or even wish to get her money back. I have done similar things on several occasions, giving fairly small sums of money to people who had had stuff stolen or had other travel related problems. And helping people in any number of different ways for a couple of days until they can get hold of money/a friend/whatever is a regular occurrence.

And that, basically, is what happened this time. The only differences to normal were that the sum was much larger, and the people involved were not able to stay around until they had money to pay it back. The details don't matter, but an unlikely and unfortunate combination of events (as is the way of the world) had mean't that they couldn't get hold of enough money – they had to pay cash, USD only – to pay for their flight tickets and needed to fly to Rwanda the following day. With timezones also playing havoc and all options looking like they had been exhausted, they were gloomily facing up to having to cancel, so i stepped in and offered. To begin with, they were confused. Then stunned. Then logic kicked in and they realised it was the only easy way to make their flight, and eventually they gratefully decided to accept. They could have got away with less and just got a 1way ticket, but in for a penny in for a pound (in for a nickel, in for a dime?) and they decided it would be cheaper and make more sense to take the full amount with a bit extra to tide them over until they could get to a bank in Kigali to receive the funds. And with that, i handed over 250usd to two people who's surnames i didn't know, and at the time didn't have any contact details for.

In a way, i know it was crazy, and in a way it was also an experiment. I certainly wouldn't do such a thing for any random backpacker. But having spent a few hours with them that day as their (different) problems unfolded, i was confident that it was a genuine problem, they intended to pay me back, and that it wasn't some scam. I also knew that even if i did get it back, i would loose money on simple transfer fees and exchange rates. there was absolutely no gain in the entire transaction for me under any circumstances. But that didn't matter, I trusted my instinct, it felt the right thing to do, and I handed over the cash and that was that. By the time i woke up the following morning, they were gone.

The really odd thing is the same day, i lent an ipod charger to some other guests. I was more worried about getting the charger back, despite that being reasonably easy to replace, and much cheaper than 250usd. And I have no idea why.

I am happy to announce that Bryan and Andrea arrived safely in Kigali, eventually got all their problems fixed and have repaid the cash. And that is that. The chances of us ever meeting again or even staying in contact, are remote. Astonishingly, I even got my charger returned. And thus my faith in backpackers has been upheld once more.

Happy traveling, everybody

Posted by Gelli 03:11 Archived in Kenya Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Wasting a week

Kenya is a strange place sometimes. Before i left for a couple of weeks, virtually every matatu had a video screen showing music videos to the 12passengers in the back. As previously mentioned these were often at high volume and even higher bass. Since I have been away, Nairobi city council came down with some legislation, ordering their removal. Astonishingly, this legislation has been adhered to, and the TV screens, source of much amusement and irritation, have all been removed. It is amazing how quick this has happened, and how thoroughly it has been done. But here is thing. The legislation was brought into effect with the aim of cutting down on noise – and noise pollution. Which of course has not happened in the slightest: matatu's now have no video entertainment but have cranked up the radio's/bass/sound systems to volumes even louder than ever. good thinking, Nairobi city council.

Today's news snippet – there hasn't been one for a bit, so it had to be about time - is a little corker. Allover East Africa, but especially Kenya, at any kind of government or official office, are signs proudly proclaiming 'This is a corruption free zone'. So far so good. The problems seems to be that certain offices have started complaining that they haven't been able to obtain these signs without having to pay certain people a little extra. Yup, you need corruption to get a no corruption sign.

As you might have guessed, I don't really have anything relevant - or even irrelevant - to say at the moment, and am just filling time between hospital appointments. And on that note, i'm off for some not-fun stuff.

Posted by Gelli 02:18 Archived in Kenya Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Several sources of Nile

sunny 34 °C

I actually kind of feel guilty about how little of Uganda I have seen. I don't really know why, but I just kind of worked out that way. For a while, I seem to have developed a kind of traveling apathy, probably brought on by my constant need to return to certain establishments, and so preventing freedom of thought and hope. I think that has only just been worked out of my system by the Western fringes of East Africa. And yet there is so much of note to see here. And now I have no time left to see it. Lake Bunyoni, for example, is somewhere I really wanted to see, and I was barely 8km from it when I was in Kabale, yet i didn't realise that until too late in the day to make a trip really feasible.

And now, coming back from Rwanda I am due back at a wonderful Nairobi institution (yes, sarcasm) in only a couple of days so don't have time to stop off there. But I did manage to stop in Jinja. It was as much to break up the journey from Kigali to Nairobi as anything else, I spent a night there. It also slightly helped offset the fact that I had to pay 50usd for another Ugandan visa and didn't want to essentially spend that just to sit on a bus bouncing across the country.

Jinja's main claim to fame is as the source of the Nile (although even that is disputed: Whilst Jinja certainly has a source of the Nile, and the most impressive one in terms of scale, Burundi claims a source further south, and Rwanda claims the longest and so true source), but to backpackers it is home to some of the best white water rafting in the world. And after arriving late at night and having a boda-boda rider try and con me mercilessly, the following morning i watched with amusement as vast hordes of mostly very young looking, excited and hungover white people headed off to drown, before leaving me with a hostel pretty much to myself.

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Above, me at the source of the Nile, although i couldn't tell you why i seem to look so unhappy. Below, what many backpackers take to be the true source of the Nile...

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Jinja is actually a very pleasant if slightly odd town. Granted it was a Sunday so many things were shut, but it was one of the few places I have been where there has been no hassle at all (well, if you ignore boda-boda riders) - nobody tries to sell you things, and there are no beggars around. Astonishingly, this was even the case in the small area of tourist shops and curio sellers, who apart from the occasional 'hello' ignored all the daft mzungu's who were looking around. Being allowed to browse curio shops without hassle and strong selling is so strange and such a novelty in East and Southern Africa, that it is pretty much outside of my comprehension.

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Looking downstream from the source of the Nile. The really impressive – and kind of unexpected thing – is that this is taken 200m from the source of the worlds longest river, and look at how flippin wide it already is!

The town is built on a kind of small peninsula between the end of the River Nile and Lake Victoria, so you are surrounded by water, and I ambled happily along the long wide residential roads, dotted with spacious if generally sadly dilapidated looking colonial style houses, and it was all very pleasant. I wandered down to the Lake, went and overlooked the source of the Nile and even found a little cafe with a great book swap. And even came across one of our 3stalkers from Southern Africa, Leslie (the boys were off doing energetic sounding things on Mt. Kenya), for the first time since Lusaka, and w happily caught up (since we had last crossed paths, amongst much else they had played on a swanky Zimbabwean golf course, been in a bad auto accident whilst hitching in Mozambique and had a bag stolen on a Malawian ferry).

Though wishing i had more time to explore the outskirts, including some apparently beautiful waterfalls only a few km out of town, I was quite happy with a lazy day of walking, and more than happy that i had decided to split my journey there. There was was an element of sadness, and pretty much all it has done is reinforce my thinking that I have not done Uganda justice, and thus must return.

I haven't put up any signs for a few posts no, so i figured it was about time I did. The first one is, obviously, right next to the police station (Tway, and other grammar Nazi's note that a far as I am aware, George W. Bush's war on terror did not extend to spelling terror), whilst the shop below was selling cleaning products, and whilst I'm sure Jesus was a believer in hygiene, I don't think he mentioned Domestos during many of his most famous speeches
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Posted by Gelli 02:11 Archived in Uganda Tagged round_the_world Comments (3)

Goma

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Of all the days for my camera to die, this was not an ideal one. I was standing on top of a glorious lava flow, with the remains of several houses to be seen, some at the second or third story and unable to take any photos to share with you all. When Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, Goma – a town which has had its share of problems over recent years, to say the least – it was mercifully not a Magmatic eruption. Instead, most locals were able to escape the oncoming devastation simply by slowly walking to safety (though there were casualties), though not without huge devastation to property and infrastructure as the lava slowly ran through the town – straight down the main street – and eventually into Lake Kivu. It could have been much, much worse.

Even now, 7years later, much of the town still has coverings of ash, and smaller roads and footpaths are now cooled lava flows instead of sand or tarmac. The smell of volcanic matter hangs around, and the further out of town you go towards the volcano, the deeper the lava flows and more destruction that is in evidence. Seeing people living or selling out of single story shops is fairly normal for Africa, until you suddenly realise that these are the top floors of what were originally 3story buildings. Everything lower down has been buried in lava and ash and lost forever.

I was in Congo (the hopefully named 'Democratic Republic of Congo' – it's not really Democratic and is barely a Republic - or Zaire for all you old people out there, as opposed to the Brazzaville version) on a quick side trip for Rwanda. After a very pleasant evening spent in Gisenyi on the Rwandan side with an Irish aid worker from Sudan (Stephen) and a Ugandan trader living in Dubai and Hong Kong, the following morning Stephen and I had ambled up to the border and – if you ignore some very dubious practices on the behalf of somebody who was not me – got Congolese visas with surprising ease.

I had come partly for the nerd in me: I have a deep interest in geography and geology, and the chance to see a town half covered in the remains of a volcano in this way was too much to turn down. Besides, i had promised to come and talk to some people about a possible job, whilst Stephen – who i had first met in Kampala – also had some old colleagues in town, so we had people able to show us round and tell us a bit about what is going on.

DR Congo is not a fun place. It is an absolutely massive country, with obscene amounts of natural resources, yet no infrastructure, huge poverty, civil unrest and corruption and with a horrific history (from its origins as King Leopald's personal fiefdom, to official Belgian colonial rule to independence and the ensuing chaos). Atrocities continue to occur daily in what is basically a lawless 'country', home to the UN's largest ever peace keeping force. And there is nothing even vaguely resembling safety or security.

Goma is at least theoretically safer than most places in the country, but that is not really saying much: It is still horribly dangerous, especially after dark. At least half of the vehicles either belong to aid agencies or are armoured UN trucks. The front lines are barely outside the city, there is no land transport anywhere except over the border I had just come across. Hearing gunfire is a daily occurrence. So are attacks, rapes, murders and other atrocities. And another one of the local volcanoes is expected to erupt at any moment, though hopefully and theoretically it shouldn't really affect the town too badly. Finally, the massive UN and aid presence means it is one of those sorts of towns I often dislike intensely due to it's polarisation: UN etc camps that always have electricity, blazing lights and noise when the rest of the country may have nothing at all, and restaurants which charge in USD and are priced towards those with expense accounts, whilst the local population struggles by on annual amounts less than the cost of the average meal. But against that, the people were all very friendly, and i felt in no way threatened wandering around during daylight.

Goma is also a place of obvious signs of some hope: Near the lake, we were treated to the very strange sight of intense building work going on on a large number of large houses being erected there. Whilst these are very obviously not designed for the average local, and pretty much scream 'corruption' at you, the fact that so many houses were under construction means that some people at least feel comfortable enough in the local situation to be willing to invest some hefty sums of money in the town. On such small notes, optimism must lie.

The job offer was interesting but not something that is of any real use to me, whilst the nearby Mountain Gorilla's i reluctantly decided i would still have to miss, despite the availability of permits the following day for a smaller cost than in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda: I realised that I just wasn't in good enough condition to hike through the jungle and up mountains, much though i would have loved to, and the shared genetic matter also means shared diseases, and i didn't want to be personally responsible for killing off the gorillas because of some small medical issue.

And so it was that I crossed back into Rwanda, both more enlightened and saddened than i had previously been, happy to have had the opportunity and contacts to show me around, but saddened even more by the current state of play and fate of the poor helpless locals.

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It's not much, I know, but this is Lake Kivu, and the only photo I managed to take before the battery died completely. Apart from that, there are some photos here if you wish to look

Posted by Gelli 02:06 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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