A Travellerspoint blog


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)

The trouble with dreams*

I probably dream about all sorts of exciting and exotic things and am periodically a superhero. Actually, scrub that. I probably dream of sheep, London bus routes and comparisons between the drying abilities of glossy and matt paint. But either way, I just don't know. I have often marveled at how people can remember often bizarre dreams in great detail, and then regale them to friends or colleagues hours or even days later. I can't do that, so as far as I know, everybody else could be making all the bunkum about their dreams up. For myself, I can generally tell you within about 10seconds of waking vaguely what i was dreaming about, and within 30seconds if I had been dreaming or not. Within 90seconds of waking, it is extremely unusual that i can even remember if i had been dreaming, let alone what it may have been about if I was. The only dream in my entire life i can remember is the toilet dream (which is vaguely similar to a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip where Calvin dreams he has got out of bed and got to school, or, alternatively, Groundhog Day). Details are unimportant, except to say that it is an occasional recurring dream which gets longer each time i have it, and has potential to end very, very badly if I really don't wake up.

I have never been a consistent sleeper. As a young child i have a vague idea that I used to fall asleep quickly, sleep deeply and for long periods, though how much of that was actual sleep and how much was just me really not wanting to get up for school is now lost to time. Since then I have regularly struggled. I have had a couple of periods of really bad insomnia (at one point, I slept about an hour a week, which was drug induced), and even now can easily go periods of a couple of days or more without sleep if i need to. The last few months have generally seen me awaken between about 3.15 and 3.35am, for no obvious reason.

I am also generally an extremely light sleeper. I have such an inbuilt paranoia complex that anything moving in the room/area where I am sleeping will pretty much wake me, even if it is something insignificant like a s0dding mosquito. The average person, apparently takes 8minutes to fall asleep. Some – like Hanna, her of the Namibian adventures – are pretty much out from the second they hit the bed, whereas I am at the other extreme: Anything under an hour or so is good for me, and it is not unknown for me to still be sleepless 2 or 3 hours later.

And unless I am traveling (on a bus, train, boat or occasionally as a car passenger), I find it pretty much impossible to take a daytime nap, regardless of how tired i feel or how much i yawn. Even the act of lying down on my bed during the day can wake me up. It is very odd, and also kind of frustrating. And even when I am traveling, I tend to sleep much less than other passengers: I sometimes find it spooky to look around and see everybody else on my bus or train carriage asleep, and occasionally wonder if I have some inbuilt immunity to this drugged air that they must have pumped in for nefarious reasons in order to send all the passengers asleep.

But the worse for me is when I know I have to be up early for a specific reason. Take today, for example**. I had to be leaving early, and so had arranged a taxi for 5:45am and set the alarm for 5:25. The previous night, i had started to feel tired around 21:30 but for reasons unknown had ignored it and not gone to bed until after midnight. I was awake by 4am. So last night, I was determined to try and get some sleep and not make the same mistake. Thus I was in bed by 22:15 and even fell asleep quite quickly. And so it was that I woke up several hours later, happily refreshed and ready for the day, and a few minutes before my alarm was due to go off so as not to wake the others in the dorm. Perfect, I thought.

Until i looked at the time. 00:11, it said.

  • I have shamelessly stolen the title from The Eels, and in fact got the idea for this utterly irrelevant post after re-hearing the song. So blame them. But not too badly. I love that song (and can even envisage where it should go in a film soundtrack: In fact I have long had pretty much an entire film soundtrack in my head, where i can see what should be playing at certain scenes. All I need to do now is write a damned film script that draws them altogether – which will be tricky as they are diverse – and i'm pretty much onto a winner).
  • * Yes, I know that by the time I actually get around to posting this thing, it won't be today, or probably even this week. But, honestly, who cares.

Posted by Gelli 15:24 Archived in Kenya Tagged health_and_medicine Comments (0)

What a difference a week makes.

What a difference a week makes. A week ago I had no expectation of ever leaving Nairobi, let alone being able to go to the Masai Mara, having the anticipation, experience and ultimately disappointing end to the trip.

Heck, a week ago, I was still essentially undiagnosed, though feeling not too bad compared to previous weeks, excepting for areas around the TV violation. Then they found the parasite and removed it. That was both a very good and very bad thing. Very good, because I finally knew exactly what was wrong with me and it seemed like the problem was almost over. Very bad because, well, how would you like it if somebody pulled a 5cm long centipede out of you by using what is essentially a piece of wire with a hook on the end shoved up your arse?

As a few people have been asking for details, i figure I may as well put a condensed version here. Very roughly, a parasite got into my system. Exactly how, where and when it got in will forever remain a mystery. My personal suspicion is that it got into me in Zambia, during Kuomboka, and probably when wading through the Zambezi flood plain chasing the king. It is a very rare parasite (because I could never get a normal damned parasite, could I?! Oh no. I just had to go and get a frickin special one) and also quite a clever and evil one. Like bilharzia, it can get into your system directly through the skin: it doesn't even need a small cut to infiltrate.

Anyhow, it probably got in when quite small and then slowly grew and moved around my inards (which would explain why I was on-and-off iffy for 2 or 3 weeks after Kuomboka until we got to Kenya). Then at some point it finally found a place it liked and made a home in my bowel and intestines, which is why i got rapidly worse in Mombasa. It stayed there for a couple of weeks, and decided it liked it so much it would like it spawn to experience it, and then laid its eggs and kind of went to sleep. Thats when i slowly started feeling better.

That is pretty much all conjecture by the doctors and myself, but it all fits reasonably well.

Basically, as it stands now, it is believed that I only had one parasite in me and that has been removed. However, it has laid an unspecified number of eggs in my bowels and intestines. Exactly when they were laid is obviously unknown, as is the number and exact locations of all of them, and this is where the fun starts. Essentially, if all of the eggs hatch, i'm pretty much doomed: One of these parasites was enough to make my life a misery and confine me to a toilet for a month, so I don't want to imagine what a dozen or a hundred would be like. The eggs are too small and well hidden to be removed (and it would be impossible to guarantee that all of them would be found) so have to be dealt with in-situ.

I am now actually feeling pretty good by all accounts, but am in the most dangerous phase. So, very roughly, I am currently undergoing treatment to try and kill the eggs and prevent them hatching. It is not a fun set of treatments, and it is impossible to know if they are working just yet. The total incubation time is guesstimated at 10weeks, give or take, so i expect to still be around here until mid July or August. But what it does mean is that i currently only need to be seen once a week for a day or two and thus assuming I don't get any side affects/reactions, it gives me some leeway and possibility to go away for periods of 4 or 5 days between treatments. Which is how I ended up in the Mara and Nakuru and is what I intend to keep doing if at all possible.

Note: this post is put up for information only, so people don't keep nagging me about what is going on, and I figured this was easier than emailing people individually. I have also very deliberately omitted the parasites name – although i have started to call him Hamish – and intend on keeping it that way. I won't tell you what it is, so please don't ask. It's not important. I am fine. I will be fine. And I will finally be away from s0dding Nairobbery and off traveling – and thus boring - you all again very soon. I have confidence in the specialists and procedures, and i don't need anything or sympathies or any help, thank you

Posted by Gelli 09:16 Archived in Kenya Tagged health_and_medicine Comments (0)

A sea of pink that smells


In today's Daily Nation, probably the most serious of Kenya's English language daily newspapers, I came across two great stories from the nations students. In the first, they were protesting about a decision to reduce the semester by 2weeks, thus giving a longer summer break. In the second, a number of students walked out of an AIDS/HIV exam (apparently this is studied by all University students as part of their first year studies) in disgust because it was far too easy, and also included some recycled questions that they knew the answers to.

Neither article bears any relevance to the rest of this tale, but I was slightly tickled by the fact students were basically complaining that their courses were too easy and they were getting too much holiday: It's not something I can ever imagine British students doing, for example – There, almost certainly most would happily have completed the easy paper before gleefully retiring early to the pub/SU, happy in the knowledge they had gained two extra weeks boozing time.

Moving on.


The final part of my 4day jaunt was to Lake Nakuru National Park, and i must admit I enjoyed it significantly more than the Masai. Located in the Great Rift Valley about 5km south of Nakuru, Kenya's 4th biggest city, Lake Nakuru national park is quite small and compact, but includes a great deal and, crucially for me at least, is nowhere near as popular or famous as the Masai Mara. With Joseph still driving us around, we lost the two English guys and gained a Nigerian travel agent, and after a night in Nakuru city (where we watched Nigeria beat Kenya 3-0 in a World Cup 2010 qualifying match in a great atmosphere with lots of animated Kenyans, and Juba, our newly joined Nigerian, being extremely vocal at every goal without even a hint of trouble or bad blood in the air: I somehow doubt that, say, a loud German fan in a packed English pub during a 3-0 German victory over the English, would have escaped so lightly) we were ready to enter the park.

It was a glorious day, and a fruitful one. Nakuru is famous first and foremost for its flamingos, who's number is unknown but estimated at roughly 3million or so. Large chunks of the lake shore were a mass of pink and despite the presence nearby of buffalo, hyena and a white Rhino, we were able to get out and have a walk close to the flamingo. They seemed non plussed by our presence, but also casually moved away to ensure that we never got closer than about 50metres from the flock. The constant sound and interesting smell will long linger, whilst one of the highlights for me was the presence of small groups of 5-10 who periodically walked quickly up and down in the area between us and the flock, in a manner of beggers following a rich person (or safari touts following a white person) or outreach security patrols. It just looked funny.


In the 4 or 5 hours that we were in the park, we saw flamingo, pelicans, vultures, assorted birds of species that I have no knowledge of, several species of monkey and baboon, ostrich, warthogs, Rothschild giraffe, hyena, zebra, dik-dik and several other species of antelope as well as the 4 of the famed 'big 5'* that live in the park: Buffalo, Lions, Leopard and Rhino, both black and white.



At one point and almost entirely by luck, we were privileged to have 2 leopards mating a couple of hundred metres away on one side, and a black rhino a few hundred metres away to the other side. Two of the most sought after and elusive animals to see in the wild, and we could see both and were one of only two vehicles nearby watching. It was infinitely better than the hoards of the Masai.



The White and Black Rhino, so called because both of them are, erm, gray. The White Rhino (above) is generally lighter coloured, larger and has a large flat squarish mouth, whereas the very rare Black Rhino (below) is darker, smaller – but still big enough to cause serious damage to you or your vehicle if it gets p1sed off and decides to charge you – and has a rounder mouth



But the thing I loved more than anything else was the scenery. As well as the Lake and flat areas around its shores, there was grassland, forest, savanna, rocky outcrops, hills and a small escarpment – a whole range of different environments. On the rocky outcrops there were some gorgeous and stunningly coloured lizards (bright blue, often with red heads), whilst in the forests and on the plains were lots of absolutely brilliant trees: fantastic shapes, and colours, with many characterized by a wonderfully green coloured bark. I would have happily wandered or cycled around the park even if there had been not a single animal in it. About the only thing that was a bit off was that the park is so small that in places it felt more like a large open zoo than an open wildlife reserve, and so you weren't always convinced that the animals were truly 'living in the wild'. But after the Masai, i'm not really sure that I cared.




Happy, we then left the park for a quick stop at a curio shop that even by East African standards was impressively packed with assorted, well, curios, before having lunch and then parting from the excellent Rwandan/Tanzanian-German duo of Sam and Lena, who were heading off to Kampala. And with that, it was time to return to Nairobi and its traffic chaos, where certain medical 'professionals' and student doctors were awaiting me, ready to insert more long sharp pointy things into my arse again.

Traveling is such fun sometimes.

Vultures (though not of the same sort that tracked the Leopard in my previous post) attack the carcass of a recently deceased Buffalo. Lake Nakuru National Park had a surprising number of large bones scattered around

  • The 'big 5', is a slightly strange concept that doesn't really have any modern relevance, but which is still mentioned endlessly in guide books, and peddled relentlessly by tour operators, t-shirt sellers and touts right across East Africa. For the record, the Big 5 comprises Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lions and Leopards, and originally stems from the time when tourists were rare and the only visitors were rich colonial hunters: the Big 5 was a hunting term, and rich Americans and Europeans came to Africa with sole intention of tracking and killing what were considered to be the 5 largest/most impressive animals, and whose heads, tusks, horns or skin was brought back to their homes and mounted (or turned into rugs, in the case of the leopard) as trophies. Even today, to many tourists their Safari (in the western sense, as opposed to the actually Kiswahili meaning of 'travel' or 'journey') is not complete without spotting/ticking off the big 5, even though Buffalo at the very least are not that rare, exciting or hard to spot. And just what Giraffe, Cheetahs and Hippo, amongst others, think of their exclusion from what people are told that they really want to see, is anybodies guess.






Top to bottom, a family of warthog oddly standing to attention, a Rothschild Giraffe eating, two Lions resting under a tree, and two monkeys, the bottom of whom really did seem pleased to see us...

Posted by Gelli 04:08 Archived in Kenya Tagged animal Comments (2)

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