Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A Jumped up Ex-Pat's Guide to Kenya

Apparently the Brits used to have some business in Kenya, back when Marmalade was racist and everyone wore top hats, so with our visas fast running out and Njiapanda offering very little in the way of New Year’s entertainment we made a sprint for the border and to Tanzania’s northern cousin of Kenya.
Our first stop was the beautiful Diani Beach just south of Mombasa, popular with European tourists and rich Kenyan youths from Nairobi, (think Newquay but with more sun and less Essex). The beach front was lined with massive all-inclusive hotels with their palm trees and their pool bars, they took one look at me and Ben and sent us to the campsite down the road. A place where the showers only produced salty sea-water, the ‘restaurant’ took hours to make a sandwich and the wake-up call was provided by stray cats and cocky monkeys wandering into the tent, (the monkeys also seemed to help out with the laundry, but they might have just been stealing clothes, difficult to say).

One thing we learnt whilst smelling of salt and monkey was that apparently the language of Kiswahili is dying out in Kenya (good for us as we are still shit), and we saw evidence of this as we boozed (repeatedly and heavily) with the local rich-kids from Nairobi. It seems these white/British Kenyans are about as racially and culturally confused as Jan Molby after he picked up his ridiculous Scandanvian-Scouse accent or Wes Brown with his bizarre ginger bonnet. Being the children/grandchildren of British colonial families, they were born and raised in Nairobi but sent to the UK for secondary school (leaving their accents a lot better than mine) and often returned to Kenya afterwards, leaving them with two nationalities but a somewhat confused cultural identity, and less Swahili than the trio of Sheffield graduates propping up the bar in the corner. (Embarrassing for them, but a proud moment for us and also the reason why these cultural insights should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt).

Having spent New Year’s on the beach irritating tourists and locals alike we headed to Mombasa proper, Kenya’s second largest city (after Nairobi) and a place with a peculiar smell due to the rubbish dumps about town placed directly in front of the ‘No Dumping’ signs, the sense of irony must be a hangover from when our lot were still making trouble over there. We stayed in a Somalian-run hotel which had a big ‘No prostitution’ sign on the corridor (killjoys) and were many of the staff didn’t speak Swahili either, preferring to natter in Arabic instead. So conversation was limited to broken English, broken Swahili and the names of Arsneal footballers, silly Somalians.

Mombasa town itself offered some cracking highlights including its Old Town, which is a bit like a more exciting York with it winding streets and historic buildings, a pair of giant elephant tusks arching over the road on the way into the city, a gift from Queen Liz in nineteen fifty-something (I’m not a tour guide), and a amazingly colourful and decorative Sikh (or Hindu maybe) temple, though I thought it looked a little like Legoland. After staying in what was essentially a squatters house and spending yet more time on a beach (which we shared with some Kenyan convicts doing community service, couldn’t see the guards, which was worrying) we decided it was high time we left Mombasa and got the train inland to the capital Nairobi.

The Mombasa-Nairobi train journey was described by Lonely planet Guide to Kenya as ‘an ultimate colonial experience’, I’m not sure whether this is a politically correct piece of travel journalism as colonialism went out of fashion a while ago, and isn’t showing any signs of a resurgence despite Prince Phillip’s commendable efforts. Regardless of this we decided to check it out and hopped on the (supposedly) 12-odd hour trek across the country, we decided to hit up second class, (too colonial for third class apparently, though Burley and me are from the north so not colonial enough for first class), and sure enough as soon as we got to the station there was a man offering to take our bags to the station for a small fee, all we needed was a copy of the times and a handle-bar moustache and we could have been something out of a Carry On film. Like everything else in on this continent, the train was running on Afrikan time, so despite being advertised as leaving at 7pm (we were told to get there no later than 6:30, or else they’d run out of Gin or cigars or something), we rolled at a pedestrian pace out of Mombasa at well past 9:30pm, (pretty sure the driver didn’t turn up until past 8, the Fat Controller ran a tighter ship than this down on Sodor Island).
Despite the bad rep Afrikan trains have acquired, it was a enjoyable (if long) trip, (preferable to the Knutsford-Piccadilly train marathon), we had our little cabin and there was a restaurant carriage (Northern Line trains take note), I got to sleep on top bunk which was more like a child’s cot after the porter put up a barrier to stop me falling out. We even got to see a ‘zebra’ (though was more likely a donkey, or a cow) as the train cut through a national park on its way north, no one else seemed to be as excited about this though, so it was probably a donkey. Or a cow. More exciting than this however was that nearly 16 hours after leaving Mombasa, the train struggled into Nairobi and the first proper city we had been in since leaving London almost three months previously. (We don’t count Dar es Salaam, because it remains, as ever, shit.)

I get excited by cities, they have big buildings, museums and smell like McDonalds. London is bloody exciting cuz they’ve got Big Ben and loads of other crap, imagine my excitement then, after being stuck out in rural Njiapanda (no buildings over two storeys and smells of petrol) when we rolled up in Nairobi, biggest city in East Afrika, and, if our taxi driver is to be believed, bigger than London as well, (he was chatting all sorts though, so you might have to check that one for yourselves). Nairobi had skyscrapers, government offices, parks, and, most shockingly unlike Njiapanda and many other Tanz towns we’ve stumbled through, the people of Nairobi (Nairobians?) looked like they had stuff to do, important stuff, city stuff. We only had one afternoon in the city so went firstly to the park, where loads of people appeared to be having a nap, even people in suits, wouldn’t happen in Knutsford and certainly not in Sheffield, and then decided to go to the National Museum and Botanical Gardens. After trying and failing to get in using our expired student cards (if they didn’t work in Didsbury Cinema I don’t know why we thought they’d work here), we tried another tactic and just walked in. Saw a crocodile getting fed, then saw a hole in its cage, we left soon after.

Nairobi had more in common with western cities than it did to anywhere in the Njiapanda region, the attitude of the general populace towards us was one of ambivalence, unlike in Tanzania, the fact that we are white (so very white) made no difference, and it was the fact that I was wearing sand-stained shorts and hadn’t shaved in about a month which seemed to cause most offense. It was an afternoon of almost western-culture in four months of rural Afrikan culture. Instead of sticking about to see if the crocodile escaped or if the city could live up to its nickname of ‘Nairobbery’ due to its legendary crime rate (the only robbery we saw was of the daylight variety with the amount they wanted to charge us for the museum. I don’t pay to visit Gardens on a point of principle, I got one at home), we got the 12 hour bus back to Njiapanda and back to work (exactly what we do at ‘work’ will be explained in the next post). Upon re-arrival at Casa del Panda, we were greeted by a power cut and an unfortunate lack of water, Nairobi it is not.

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