A Travellerspoint blog


The hot wet sensation of freedom

But not yet from Hamish. Though that may come soon.


As I stood in the shower at Kilimanjaro backpackers in Moshi, Tanzania, I almost felt like I was cleansing myself from Kenya, and especially, Nairobi. The fact that shower had both excellent water pressure and adjustable (temperature) hot water and is the best shower I have used in the last 10 months or so, made it seem even better.

It is odd. I have been in Kenya for about 2months spread over the last 3, but due to circumstance haven't really seen that much of it on the grand scale of things. It really hasn't gone quite to plan, even allowing for the fact that I didn't have a plan to begin with. I arrived in Nairobi both horribly sick and with some fairly bad preconceived ideas, and to be honest, it really didn't do anything to try and help me improve that image.

I had some interesting experiences, and yet more that I will not forget in a hurry. I met some cool people – local and travellers – and made some good friends. Eventually, I was also lucky enough to find some really excellent Doctors and specialists as well. There have been some high points, sure, but to be honest, most of them were quite small: the beef noodles at the local chinese restaurant which were wonderful and possibly consumed more often than they should have been; the staff at the internet cafe where I became a regular, the coffee in Java House and to a point, Dormans. Some of the staff at Bush house and Nairobi Hospital. Nakuru national park was a wonderful surprise, and I really liked Mombasa old town.

But in general there have been more disappointments, and I have to say that Kenya has the dubious distinction of joining a very short list (previously only Vietnam was on it) of countries I have visited that I was happy to leave, and which I would in no way be bothered if I never visited again. Like Vietnam, there are a couple of things I really would have loved to do but did not: Climb Mt. Kenya, visit Hells Gate NP, the Kakamega Forest and Lamu island chief amongst them, but even the pull of those is not enough to have me already wishing i could go back, as so many other countries do. Even passing a fairly fancy looking hotel in Kitengela whilst on the bus to Tanzania and seeing that one of it's attractions was an 'elegant butchery' (amongst more normal selling point like free wifi, and DSTV Satellite TV. Out of curiosity, how often is a butchery – elegant or not – high on your your list of requirements when choosing a hotel?) could barely raise a smile by that point.

Most of what I saw in Kenya disappointed: It's 2 major and most famous attractions, the Masai Mara (admittedly I missed the wildebeest migration) and the Mombasa area beaches (admittedly out of season) were both big let downs for different reasons, whilst Nairobi somehow managed to leave me with a worse impression than my initial expectations had imagined (which were so low that even Aylesbury and Hssleholm were above it). There aren't many places I have been where you spent half of your waking hours stuck in traffic jams – or being in accidents in traffic jams – and when you are not in those traffic jams, the most memorable events are a person dropping dead and then being robbed in front of you, a policeman shooting repeatedly at the bus you are in and rocks smashing windows of the vehicle you are in, in an attempted carjacking. The fact that much of my time in the city was spent in hospital and really wasn't fun, seems positively pleasurable in comparison.

Add in the political turmoil which is cleverly and rapidly destroying what was one of East Africa's strongest democracies, and sadly, Kenya is somewhere that will not highest on my list of places to recommend to others, or to return to. And for a country with so much potential, that is actually very sad.

Posted by Gelli 04:41 Archived in Kenya Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Looking back at life in Bush House

I'm actually leaving Nairobi.

No really, I am.

Yes, REALLY really.

And i don't need to come back. Well, ok, I do, but i'm not. Not after the events of a couple of days ago.

My life suddenly has a large hole in it that will take some filling.

I can't say that I am all that upset to be finally leaving Bush House, nice place and home for much of the last few months though it has been. In fact, it has been my home for longer than some places I have officially lived in. Cheap by Nairobi standards and scrupulously clean, nether-the-less after so long you get to see things in a different light. I have been electrocuted by 5 different things (the front gate buzzer in the rain, shower, socket, drinks fridge and power point) although none severely. The staff have generally been very good and friendly, although there have been isolated incidents where a different side has been seen: And the night 'watchman' is one of the most useless and biggest wastes of space (and, I assume, money) that I have ever come across. Hot water has not always been reliable – and sometimes is so hot that it is basically steam – and that was even before Nairobi as a city, simply ran out of water.

The electricity supply has also failed totally on a couple of occasions, and whilst Internet is free, it is very temperamental and slow if/when you actually get it to work. The orange building went from garish, to comforting to the point where it eventually started to get to me, as did smaller things like the insistence of the staff of moving 2 of the bunks in the dorm when cleaning to a position that means you then can't shut the door. And silly things like lightbulbs not being replaced (the downstairs toilet was out for well over 2weeks before it was finally replaced, despite complaints) and soap/toilet roll – who cleans a bathroom but doesn't bother to put in a new toilet roll? And whilst I love how they try and accommodate all guests, it doesn't always make things easy for longer term guests, as 8 different beds in 6 rooms during my final 9 night stay confirmed.

All of these things slowly build up over time, and nag at you and impressions change, though my time and experiences has obviously been coloured by my health/general state, and the fact that being off-season (at least to begin with -by the time i returned for what now seems the final time, it was full and i had to spend my first night back in a guest house down the road), the hostel was often mostly or entirely empty of other guests.

Despite all that, and the fact that I am desperate to get away from the chains of Nairobi, I am still sad in a way. It has essentially been my home for the last 12weeks or so (well, so has Nairobi Hospital and the Nairobi traffic) and it has fulfilled its job of a cheap, comfortable and friendly place to sleep, stay, recover and meet people, whilst not sending me even more stark raving mad than I already was. For that i will always be grateful.

I still need to go and get a couple of injections at another decent hospital of my choice (ahem) but that can be done almost anywhere. And after this week,it will definitely not be Nairobi unless I really can't help it.

But I now have a small hole in my life. And despite my excitement and relief at finally being passed fit-ish and able to leave this damned city, I have absolutely no idea where I will go next. Part of me never expected this day to come, and so I have done no planning at all towards it. Original thoughts and ideas of heading to Ethiopia for a few weeks (Along with Eritrea, I have always wanted to visit), and then either Djibouti to jump a freighter or north to Cairo and then the Middle East are no longer really viable due to assorted circumstances, whilst short term work opportunities in Ethiopia, Sudan, DR Congo and Tanzania have now long since passed.

Still, I'm sure i'll think of something. I normally do.

Posted by Gelli 04:37 Archived in Kenya Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

When carjackings go wrong (or right?)

When I crossed back from Uganda a couple of weeks ago, the Kenyan border guards were extremely friendly and must have assumed they were doing me a favour. Sadly, it hasn't really worked that way. In East Africa, once you have a visa for each individual country, you can cross as many times as you wish between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. However, once you leave that trio for another country, you theoretically need to get a new visa for each of the the east African countries you then re-enter. The other East African countries or Burundi and Rwanda are included in this as they have yet to join the free movement agreement, but should soon join.

What the Kenyans did, was despite my waving my 25usd visa fee at them and actively wanting a new 1month (or more) visa, is stamp me back into for free. They could obviously see that I had left the area because the stamp was put on the same page as my Burundi and DRC stamps, but they stamped me back anyway. Normally, this would be great and would save me money. But in this case, I was close to the end of my original 3month validity anyway, yet still needed to be in Kenya for medical purposes beyond that point. After making inquiries as to the cost and ease of extending a Kenyan tourist visa, it quickly became clear that it would be much less hassle (and probably cost) to leave the country for a few days instead of trying to get it fixed in Nairobi.

Which is how I came to be in a taxi at 5.45am heading to the bus terminal in town, in order to get a bus to Tanzania for a few days on a visa run. I had picked Tanzania simply because it was the closest, cheapest and easiest country to get to, rather than any more devious reason. I had previously caught the same bus southwards on 2 occasions in the last couple of months so I wasn't overly worried about events, at least until the first 'bang' noise.

Coming around one of the roundabouts on the main North-South highway through Nairobi, we first heard 2 banging-metallic thud noises, followed barely a second later by a dull thud that sounded almost like a muffled gunshot and the cracking/sprinkling of glass. It was still dark, and even though it was an intersection on the countries busiest road in the capital, very poorly lit.

The driver and I both instinctively ducked, and glanced at each other is slight shock. We briefly slowed a bit, before the driver started to speed up again and I swiveled around (still half ducked) to survey the scene. The rear driver's side window was now sporting a fairly large hole in it's centre, with the rest of the window badly cracked but still just about in place. In the middle of the roundabout a few dark shapes of young men could be seen heading towards the car and then hesitate when it started to speed up again.

A few minutes later, we stopped at the relative sanctity of a well lit petrol station with several people around and took stock. A survey of the car revealed obvious dents on the driver and rear driver side doors just below window level, whilst I retrieved a lump of jagged rock a bit bigger than a golf ball from amongst the shattered glass on the backseat. Instantly, we both realised that we had been very very lucky in pretty much all respects (excepting the taxi driver's needing to spend a small fortune he probably doesn't have on a new window).

It seems we had been caught in one of Nairobi's current trendiest carjacking methods: Had we continued to slow down or stop to inspect the damage when it had occurred (as would be the natural reaction), there is little doubt that we would have been relieved of the vehicle and everything in it, and quite possibly we would have had been subjected to other 'entertainments' as well. Being forced to withdraw lots of money from ATM's, being ransomed, injected with AIDS infected blood, driven around for hours whilst tied up in the boot and/or being murdered (as happened to one Member of Parliament in a carjacking only last month) are par for the course in Nairobi. Similarly, if one of the rocks had been a few centimetres higher, or the successful one a half second earlier, then the driver would have been hit (whether they were specifically aiming at the driver or not is unknown, but all 3 hits were on the drivers side, so probably), with probable horrific and – quite likely deadly – consequences. And we were extremely lucky that there had not been a rear seat passenger, who would undoubtedly have been hit by the window-breaking rock and probably badly injured or worse.

After looking at the scene for a minute or two, with nothing else we could really do, we continued on our way. In the 3minutes or so it took to continue to the bus stop, i had made a decision. I have occasionally been in dangerous places or situations before, and admit that I had come to Nairobi with a very poor preconception, but after being shot at and now almost carjacked within a week in a 'normal' city/place, I resolved there and then that regardless of anything else, I would not be returning to Nairobi in the near future if I could in anyway prevent it.

I know that i still need to be here for probably another couple of weeks, but that's for me to try and solve. For now, my loathing of Nairobi is at it's highest and I need to leave – and for some time, not just a few days – before it ends up being the death of me. At this rate, literally.

I REALLY hate Nairobi.

(Sorry there are no rock/broken window pictures. I did think of it, but my camera was buried deep in my locked rucksack in anticipation of the bus journey, and I didn't want to start rooting around for it and unpacking everything at that point. Besides, it would have been a bit of a p1ss take to the poor driver who has to fund a new window)

Posted by Gelli 21:32 Archived in Kenya Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Six degrees of Kevin Bacon

One of things that I find fascinating about traveling is discovering – or constantly being reminded about - just how small a world this is. The theory of 6 stages of separation (or 6 stages of Kevin Bacon, depending on your preferences) really does hold true. It is amazing just how often you run into people you know, or people that know a mutual acquaintance or have some other connection to, or people that have heard of you for whatever reason (and in my case, rarely a good one).

I have had some crazy ones in the past – that night journey in Tajikistan all those years back, and that hostel in Southern Turkey will both take some beating – but what I think fascinates me most is how quickly when talking to a stranger, you can realise you have a mutual friend. A classic example of that came in Shanghai on one of my longer trips a few years back, when I randomly got talking to an English girl one night in the hostel. Within 10minutes, we had discovered that she had shared a house in Australia with somebody I had spent a few years at school with 20years previously. It wasn't the fact that we both knew the person in question that was astonishing, rather how the conversation happened to run in such a way that we worked it out so quickly. In other circumstances (and this is pre-Facebook, where mutual friend links suddenly become easier to discover), i could probably have known this girl for 5-10 or more years without conversation ever going in a useful direction for us to realise we both knew Matt. Possibly what is even more interesting/frightening is how many of these mutual link exist that are never discovered, simply due to fate or turn of conversation.

When traveling it has always been fairly common to run into people over and over: You often find that whilst you thought you had a wonderfully unique route or idea, in actual fact there are many other people doing very similar routes at similar times, who you periodically bump into. Seeing familiar faces months later is almost always good fun, although can occasionally be a hideous experience.

In areas with a fairly narrow 'tourist trail' as such (such as the South-East Europe loop, or Vietnam), or more limited backpacker/western infrastructure (such as parts of East Africa), this gets accentuated. Certainly, having pretty much lived in the same hostel for 3months, I have met several people 2 or 3 times as they pass through at the start and end of their trips, or between tours. One girl, Kelly, i think I have now met on 7 different occasions at the same hostel: We are both stuck around this part of the world for a while and return to the same place in between our short excursions. East Africa also has a large number people who come for voluntary placements, and there are also several groups of people who are constantly turning over on their way to/fro the same project: I have met any number of people from a Dutch University all on the way to/from Kitui town, where they work on assorted projects as part of their studies. Ditto Engineers Without Borders going to Kakamega.

And naturally it works both ways. There are not that many Welsh people traveling the world (personally, I meet very very few), and even fewer cartographers. So people tend to remember the Welsh map guy, or hear stories about me long before I ever meet them (and many, i will never meet) especially the more oddball ones, and occasionally it is in the most surreal of ways. This is particularly true at the moment, where I am in a fairly small hostel and with a specific story that people like passing on to others in their projects (the wonders of having such a fun parasite as Hamish. He is certainly a frequent topic of conversation) – several people I have met have said a bit later 'oh, you are the guy we were told about' or words to that affect.

And so, happily I can report that in the past 24hours, I have randomly come across 5 different people who I know from different African countries and different stages of this current trip. It has been a bit surprising, but also fun catching up. I don't know why there has been this sudden spurt: After a few weeks without anything, I have also come across several old colleagues/acquaintances via the Belgian, and then one of Maaret and my stalkers - who we met regularly in Namibia and Zambia - in Jinja. By now, you will have realised that there i absolutely no reason for this entry except that i have an hour to kill during treatments and can't do anything except lie on my front. I've just finished my book, so i figured i may as well type this drivel, as it is more exciting – marginally – than watching the already dry paint on my cubicle wall.

Now, if only i had a good tin of magnolia paint...

Posted by Gelli 04:26 Archived in Kenya Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Bang-Bang went the policeman's gun


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)

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