Thursday, January 8, 2009

North (by Northwest) to Nairobi

We hurtled out of Dar es Salaam heading towards Nairobi in the coach equivalent of a Fiesta XR2i with a three thousand pounds sound system in the boot. I was tired of Africa: tired of things not working, tired of waiting, tired because trains with so much slack in the couplings that the carriages knock around like they’re on a Newton’s Cradle do not foster deep and peaceful sleep (and neither do cheap hotel rooms without air conditioning when temperatures reach satanic levels at two in the morning). I didn’t want to be in Africa. So I wasn’t.

I had read a few pages of ‘The Lovely Bones’ the day before and had immediately liked the author’s style. So I hid in the book. In this way I didn’t hear the street sellers that crowded around the coach every time it slowed enough for them to run alongside; I didn’t see the crumbling buildings that lined the roadside or the empty faces of those who sat outside them and stared at the vehicles that rushed by; and I didn’t smell the horrific stench of the toilets when we stopped. But a novel cannot last forever, especially when it is being used to escape from the world. And so by early afternoon I was back in Africa, my senses awakened once more to everything I had escaped from for a few short hours that morning.

In a state of dehydration induced delirium a couple of things occurred to me: firstly, I would need water, a lot of water, sometime soon; secondly, we were not going to be in Nairobi before midnight. While the coach driver attacked the roads with a certain suicidal glee (it is a peculiar thing about Africans that they rarely seem in a rush to do anything until you put them behind the wheel of a vehicle, then suddenly they seem overwhelmed by a desire to move as swiftly as humanly possible, and, well, if humanly possible isn’t quite quick enough then angelically possible will do just fine too), he also liked to stop a lot, to pick up more people (for whom there weren’t any seats) or just for some idle banter with the locals.

I considered asking the driver what time he thought we might arrive in Nairobi. But, as others have noted, time in Africa is not the same as time in the Western world; questions concerning when something might or might not happen are generally meaningless, at least if you want or expect a precise - meaningful - answer. As far as would concern most Africans, we would arrive in Nairobi when we got there, that was as much as they would ever need to know. The most accurate and honest answer I could expect was ‘later’ and this wouldn’t quite meet my exacting Western standards of a given hour, or even a given day. I did try to ask the driver about being dropped off outside a hotel in Nairobi (the prospect of wandering the streets of Nairobbery in the early hours didn’t particularly appeal) but I was rudely rebuffed. I began devising a Plan B.

I had hoped we would make it to Arusha, northern Tanzania’s tourist hub, by nightfall; there we could find a hotel for the night and then catch another bus to Nairobi in the morning. But the sun was already setting when we pulled into Moshi, still two hours from Arusha. We sat in Moshi bus station for ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Half an hour. The sun had now set. The coach was bad enough in daylight; the idea of it tearing around in the dark made me distinctly uncomfortable. Time for Plan C, time to get off the coach. We took our lives out of the hands of the kamikaze coach driver. And put them in the hands of a taxi driver. In hindsight this was definitely the right decision, though I might have been less inclined to think so if the taxi driver had wrapped us around a palm tree.

The unlit African roads that separate Arusha from Moshi passed in a 120km/h blur. A blur that was made all the more hazy by the thick black smoke that billowed from the exhaust of a minibus we got stuck behind. We arrived in Arusha somewhat surprised that our limbs were still where they were supposed to be and decided to splash out on a half-decent hotel to celebrate.

For the price of a common-or-garden bed and breakfast in the UK we stayed in the most wonderful hotel. There were leather sofas in our room (I had never stayed anywhere where there was room for anything other than a bed in the room), the bed was the most comfortable I had slept in since coming to Africa and the breakfast the next morning was never ending: fruit then cereal then croissants than toast then sausages and bacon and eggs and baked beans, all washed down with tea and fruit juice and more tea and more fruit juice.

At dinner that evening, in one of the hotel’s many restaurants (well, there were three I think, but more than one seems a lot to me), we talked about how it would be possible to have incredibly different experiences of Africa. The bus we were to get the next day generally shuttles tourists from Nairobi airport, where are they are met by a friendly looking fellow who meets them in arrivals, to the doors of the hotel in Arusha. There they would be greeted by polite, professional, attentive staff who would accommodate them with a minimum of fuss or delay. From their hotel they would be taken on safari, to the Ngorogoro Crater and the Serengeti, staying in lodges or luxury tented camps, enjoying game drives and cultural excursions; the most they would have to do is brush their own teeth. Then back to the hotel in Arusha, the shuttle bus to the airport, then home again. Or you could do these things the way we were. Africa is a lot easier to enjoy if one has money it would seem. But that’s not really Africa.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is great observational storytelling. And I'm always impressed by someone who isn't afraid of semi-colons. I'll be back for more.