A Travellerspoint blog

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)

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)

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