(from the journal of a reluctant visitor)
Even nominally prepared for culture shock, Kenya is utterly unlike anything I have experienced. It’s not merely a matter of gearing down to a slower speed, either. I’m the complete outsider. English, heavily accented and hard to follow, is spoken grudgingly and sparingly, though people I’ve encountered so far—mostly taxi drivers and desk clerks and guards—seem friendly enough. I repeat to myself over and over never to be in a hurry to do anything.
The Greton has a sleepy guard out in front, two sleepy desk clerks inside, and two floors up another guard at the locked gate to allow in only the guests. My $17 room would please your average ascetic monk—relatively clean but barren of all but the necessities. There is no hot water or toilet paper but I was prepared for that. The heat is stifling and there’s not much I can do about it as the window (broken lock—climb right in) opens into the common covered courtyard airshaft which also acts as an amplifier for the dozens of other guests on three levels who are chatting and singing while lolling on the railings. Even dog-tired and ear-plugged it will take a while to get to sleep.
Being Sunday, there’s nothing for a visitor of limited means and no connections to do but wait until evening when some of the restaurants open.
I feel very alone. Even the West African French that drifts in the window is so heavily accented I can’t follow it. No English at all. This is not a tourist hotel, that much is clear—at least not for Europeans and Americans. I recognize some United Nations Forces uniforms walking in and out. The street outside is vaguely menacing but that may be part of it being Sunday. I look forward to the bustle of a business day. I may be out of my mind but I expect I’ll feel safer in a crowd. Jesus, though, I stick out like a sore thumb.
I venture out to an Indian restaurant for dinner. Even though I ask about taxi fares at the desk and am assured that 100 shillings will do it, the price instantly becomes 200 at the taxi. That’s five bucks. I wish I had a trustworthy guide—the street scene as glimpsed during the somewhat harrowing and completely uncomfortable taxi ride looks tantalizing and extremely hazardous. At currently quoted prices, there’s no way I can afford to ride. Tomorrow I hit the pavement and take my chances.
As the restaurant fills with faces from all over the world, I stare at a glass of water and a plate of salad I dare not touch. I wonder about the immense amount of emotional energy I expend talking. Here in my physical and cultural isolation and linguistic limbo I can’t talk to engage the mechanism by which I reassure myself that all is well and to work out which of the available options to choose next. I mumble alot to myself but it’s just not the same.
For a long moment I’m scared right down to the soles of my feet. I realize that here there is no safety net. One false move and I could vanish and no one would ever know what happened.
The food is heavenly, even though the chicken within the makhanwalla sauce clearly died of old age. Marinated? It is to laugh. Vegetable koftas and a Tusker lager. The sound system kicks in with traditional Indian saxophone music, then traditional accordion, then a traditional banjo-sarod duet. The Guide warned of grit in the rice. It was right.
The restaurant has no windows. Perhaps the view of the traffic mayhem outside would prove too disturbing for patrons. The second ingredient listed on the Tusker label is ‘corn starch.’ Also the bottle is blown with the words ‘beer only’ in relief. Should I worry? Oh, well. I never thought I’d be glad to see tourists. God help me but just sitting across the room from two slightly loud Aussies is an emotional relief.
Paying for another night back at the Greton, I get an interesting lesson at the hotel desk in taking things nice and slow. I paid for the second night, which came to 700 shillings and pulled out two 500-shilling notes. The girl at the desk wrote up the receipt, took the notes, and then said she had no change. “But I need change,” I said. She turned to a friend and they chatted a while casually in Swahili, then she turned to me again, having appearently agreed that they had no change. Then she gave me a look that transparently said, “If I wait long enough, American, you might just say ‘I’m in a hurry—keep the change’…” But I just stood there, looking perfectly happy to stand there all night. Finally she shrugged, got up, very slowly wandered upstairs to the bar and came back down with the change.
I pocket my change and saunter upstairs into the bar for another Tusker and a chance to write quietly in my journal. The color TV in the corner of the L-shaped room was awfully loud but a narrow door leads out to the balcony and several tables under an awning. The beer is half the price charged in the restaurant.
It’s started to rain in the street and under the awning the air is moving just enough to send a few drops of water into my ear and bring the pungent and nutty smells of the street up to the balcony. At the next table are two men and a woman in their twenties speaking mostly Swahili (I guess) but occasionally lapsing into fragments of English. The woman keeps smiling over at me, raising her glass and saying “Cheers!” Now they seem to be speaking some French patois. The one with his back to me turns around and offers me some kind of herb. No thanks. Cheers again, though.
The rank of dilapidated taxis just sits in the street with the drivers chatting with the hotel guard, leaning on the opposite wall with the shoe shine guy and the corn cob roaster and eyeing the hookers as they parade from the busy corner in their red dresses and white running shoes. The rain stops after fifteen minutes. One taxi driver told me it rains a little like this every evening but probably the days would be clear. We’ll see.
As I put my pen down after finishing the last sentence and went to finish my last inch of Tusker, the fellow at the next table with his back to me who had earlier offered me the herb says “Join us!” So I do.
The herb man’s name, he says, is Anderson—from Addis Ababa. He wears a broad smile and open countenance with just the hint of a moustache. Both his friends are also Ethiopian, which instantly explains the woman’s radiance (though she radiates more later but that’s entirely due to brandy and Coke). Her name is Asha. Her male friend, with a long face and a brow often furrowed as he searches for an appropriate English word, is Alex. We exchange pleasantries and talk about the world as best we can with the common language we can devise.
After another round of Tuskers and some brandy delivered in portion control packets like ketchup, I am treated to Asha trying to con the waiter out of a good percentage of the bar tab. They negotiate and argue for ten minutes over a couple of bucks with him sticking to his guns as she tries every transparent feminine wile she can pull out of a repertoire clearly learned from watching B-movies. I laugh out loud as she finally settles up with a beautiful pout and an “I won” glance beamed sideways at Alex.
The herb turns out to be khat, the Ethiopian/Somali natural organic amphetamine that you just chew and get high and wired. Asha and Anderson chew away on little sticks of khat he keeps producing from his breast pocket. They tell me it’s called ‘minaa’ in Swahili and is grown quite widely and apparently legally in Kenya.
The general merriment of the bar tab negotiation now attract an Arab-looking guy sitting alone at the next table. He joins us, introducing himself as Jamal. Jamal is Yemeni but had worked for some time in Winnipeg and speaks fine English as well as Swahili. Asha admits that her mother was Yemeni, then sings a snatch of a song in Yemeni Arabic. Very nice, too.
Conversation skitters every which way with Asha getting drunk enough to be pouty, and unambiguously impatient whenever she isn’t the center of attention. The fact that I unwilling either to marry her or to sponsor her emigration to the United States does not improve her mood. Alex enjoys a rare chance to use all the English cuss words he knows. Jamal tries to debate religion. Asha declares, “No talk about God!” Finally after about an hour we go our separate ways. I return the cheery “Hi!” from the whore on the landing and climb alone to my room above. I never see the same guard twice at the security gate on the third landing. This must be the local answer to full employment.