Into Kenya

I found a great bookstore in Moshie, Tanzania.  It was mostly filled with academic and  religious books.  Nearly everything was in English.  It was not what I’d expected to find.  I bought travel guidebook and a novel.  This took a few attempts.  The Lonely Plant book alone rang in at over $40 CDN.  That’s a lot of Tanzanian shillings and after an embarrassing rummage at the cash register where all I managed to find was about 20% of the required cash.  So much for the rich tourist (‘mzungu’) stereotype.  Mzungu is the loose equivalent of ‘gringo’ and just means foreigner.  It’s not pejorative, for the most past, and I got a lot of the  cries of “Mzungu!” when I walked past in Tanzania and elsewhere in East Africa.  

After failing at the cash register I walked the twenty minutes back to my hostel, a cool place run by a German family, and returned an hour later with a very impressive stack of shillings – eight of the biggest notes in circulation –  the $10,000 shilling edition.  Each of these is worth $6.40 Canadian.  It was awkward trying to beat the bank’s $5 international ATM fee by taking out a lot in one go given the big bill was not that big.  It would be like an ATM at home that only spits of $5 notes.  Prior to paying for a safari and part of Kilimanjaro I had an impressive wad of cash.  I remembered the Jesse character in Breaking Bad exulting such an outcome.

"Fat stacks [of cash], Mr. White!"

“Fat stacks [of cash], Mr. White!”

The Lonely Planet was worth it – it inspired me to head off to Uganda.  The novel, Dark of the Sun, was perhaps one of the worst I have ever read.  It was openly racist and steeped in needless violence and carnage even for a book about mercenaries rampaging through Congo.  Odd to find such a thing in an academic/religious bookstore.  Anyway, I thought it was bad until I looked up a review and saw they made a controversial movie based on it 1968.  The movie decided the book was too tame, evidently, so they added Nazis and a chainsaw duel.  It’s not on my list of things to watch anytime soon.

Different genres, but one was clearly better

Different genres, but one was clearly better

Upon deciding to head to Uganda the first step was to get to Nairobi.  I checked out the bus options and picked a smaller shuttle bus that promised door-to-door delivery.  This seemed to be a good idea since I was getting in late that night into a city with a bad reputation.  Lonely Planet’s take is that Nairobi  is “the most dangerous city in Africa, beating stiff competition from Johannesburg and Lagos.”

In true to door-to-door form I got picked up at my hostel.  It was an hour late but that was fine as it let me get another wildly frustrating hour of the slowest internet I’d seen since noisy 14.4 modems.  The driver insisted I sit in the front.  Fair enough.  Then he started a series of questions.  It was a little weird.

“What kind of bird is best?  Please tell me!  Then tell me what kind of big cat is best.  The best cat!”

This was mostly in English but it turned out that he also spoke Spanish.  He spoke it much better than I did.  I tried to play along, in Spanish, but I’m quite incoherent and doubly bad after two years of atrophy.  I remembered the word for eagle, but had no idea what “bald” was.  Not that I think the bald eagle is the best bird but my linguistic hands were tied because I couldn’t think of any other birds.  So I told the guy something along these lines:

“The best is the eagle with no hair.  He is without hair.  No hair.  The eagle.  He is big.  He lives in a house in the United States.  President Obama.”

On the cat side, I did know “orange”, “fat” and “cat” in Spanish but there was no conceivable way I was going to proffer Garfield as an example of a best cat.  The Dwight Schrute esque line of questioning did get old soon.  Yet, as it turned out he was just the transfer driver to the real bus.  That was a relief.  He asked me if I had Facebook.  I said I was on MySpace because FB would not let my profile play rock music and have spinning .GIF cats – bueno gatos –  and such things.  He looked appalled at what I rube I was and made no further attempts to befriend me electronically.

The Kenyan border a very basic government profit centre.  It’s a hand-us-the-US-dollars-and-go model.  The only issue was that I was out of US Dollars.  I figured I could pay in Tanzanian shillings – there is a lot of political collaboration between the five countries in the East African Community after all.  I was wrong.  The customs guy was horrified that I had only Tanzanian cash despite the border between the two counties being perhaps 10 meters away.  I had a look for an exchange place, either a man in a trench coat or a booth, but saw nothing.  Well, nothing but a huge line behind me.  As it turned out the “no Tanzanian money ever” impasse was quite easy to solve.

Me:                         Can I pay a fine for the inconvenience?  In                                         Tanzanian cash?  Say I give you $50,000                                         shillings [$30 US]?

Customs guy:        *rolls his eyes* Ok.  Ahem.  Your change.  It                                       will take a looooong time to get change.                                             Long time.

Me:                         Oh, no worries.  I understand.  Thank you.

It’s not technically a bribe but it’s the closet I’ve actually been to paying one anywhere.  And I don’t think my bus colleagues would be down with me waiting a “long time” for $10 so off I went.  Really, it’s more of a tax on stupidity.   I was sort of disappointed that there was not more cash options between the two countries…  until I read well after the fact that a common currency for the five is on the agenda.  It’s actually behind schedule but it will be cool to see.  The five countries are even planning to team up as a federation circa 2015 which I think is very brilliant.  Suddenly you have a market of an eighth of a billion people that is a force to be reckoned with.

The bus continued uneventfully until the first drop-off which was just outside Nairobi.  The driver pulled over on a six lane highway in the dark and pointed to a hotel across the street.  A solitary European lady was told that “that’s your hotel.  Be careful crossing!”  He then sped off and left her in a cloud of dust.  This did not bode well and sure enough 30 minutes later was the call for “everyone off!”   It was downtown Nairobi in parts unknown.  I chatted with the driver about the omission:  I’d confirmed my destination address during booking, then as a follow-up and finally prior to leaving.  It was all for naught.  He grunted “no” and clambered up to start unloading gear from the roof.  It was more tossing gear to a small group of men below.  I followed him up to the roof of the bus to press the issue.  He told me to get off the roof.  I told him some other things.  I was unhappy as I still had no Kenyan money at that time, had no map prepared and only a rough idea where I was heading.  This was not how late night Nairobi ought to play out.  Then, I noticed that he’d gotten my bag off the roof and it was down in the mob of cabbies.  This was probably good as it cut the confrontation short.  I bid him a most pleasant evening and stomped down to get my stuff back and make sure to find a cabbie who would accept my US $10 note.  I say ‘cab’ but it was more a slew of rough looking unmarked Nissans with tinted windows – not the most appealing option but it would have to do.

My ongoing cab tactic now is to get the driver’s contact info during the trip for possible future trips.  This is great for the first ride in a new country where it’s still a feeling-out-process for the trip cost: late night drop-offs tend not to have lots of price debate.  It’s best to just load up and get moving.  Hopefully it gives the driver less incentive to gouge if there may be more business coming up.  And at the very least it’s less incentive to pull any dodgier stunts than overcharging.

The moral of the story is that Riverside Shuttle is not one to travel with when going from Tanzania to Kenya.  The sheer arrogance and irresponsibly is staggering.  I sent a follow-up note to the owner.  He shrugged it off saying the driver was “new” but would “face consequences” and would not give me my money back.  Sure, toss that guy under the figurative bus but the management accountability is the real issue.  Plus, money walks and BS talks.

How can an outfit with a website this legit dodgy?

How can an outfit with a website this legit dodgy?

Nairobi seemed quite nice.  I accomplished seemingly nothing but boring logistics – money changing, grocery shopping, laundry and bus ticket buying.  It was a lot of key clanking each time.  I was handed a huge Africa-shaped key chain.  It would have been fun if it was raygun to deter muggers but the boring actual reason was just to make it so awkward that it’s better to leave at the front desk. They must have enough robberies to make replacing keys an expense to consider.

The raygun

The raygun

Getting bus tickets was a hassle as it was in person and that meant spending about 45 minutes in traffic in a taxi to go maybe five or six kilometers.  The British legacy, roundabouts, don’t help.  They do work well in quaint little towns but in Nairobi with 5+ million people it becomes a horrendous circular mess of congestion.  Kenya looks to be building overpasses across many of them to minimize the gridlock.

Yet, the city is dense and compact.  This is an amazing photo that illustrates this:

I was staying downtown after only booking one night in the first place and finding it full for the second.  On the plus side I got to be downtown for the second night.  I got caught up on emails and the blog and ended up closing down an internet café.  Getting a cab for the for any walk at night is recommended but four blocks seemed like overkill.  It was perfectly safe as it turned out but even still some adrenaline crept into the mix.  I was fairly robbery prepared anyway – I had an old and deactivated Visa card and a slew of low denomination bills (maybe $10 worth) bulking up my wallet and the raygun stashed safely at the hotel desk.

The next morning it was off to the bus station bright and early to head to Uganda.

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