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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Day 18, 19 July 2010: Departure (Nairobi to London) [20100818|15:38]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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[the weather today is |the end]
[with a hint of |the humming of defragmenting disks]

We rose early on our last morning in Kenya. Cups of tea were consumed, final bits of packing were finished and a note left for George and Anne. Kennedy arrived to take us to the airport. We just managed to wedge our luggage in the boot of his spacious car. He put on some soft soul that shaded into jazzier R&B to wake us up gently. We watched people stream towards the city on the shoulders of the six-lane freeway.

Suddenly, the pickup truck driving next to and slightly ahead of us, which wasn’t speeding or doing anything stupid, swerved into our lane to avoid a pedestrian dashing across the road. The driver lost control of the vehicle and spun out in front of us. Kennedy braked rapidly and coolly and we came to a stop, incredibly, a couple of inches from the pickup’s bumper. The truck’s rear end was mostly in the central reservation.

Not, however, before we heard the sickening thud of metal hitting flesh.

I saw the pickup driver at the moment he realized he’d hit someone. It’s etched onto my mind: his anxious turbaned head craning at his rearview mirror and the slump of his shoulders and slow blink of his abruptly deadened eyes. Then I saw the schoolgirl’s body crumpled against a tree. For some reason, I noticed that her socks didn’t match and this bothered me. I heard a high-pitched whimper, which was coming from me. “She’s breathing,” said the bloke, grasping my arm. “She’s alive.”

A huge crowd began to form on the central reservation. A group of men roughly lifted the girl into the pickup. The last we saw of the driver as we carefully maneuvered around the truck, he was climbing back into the cab, his ashen face set as the noise of the crowd swelled. I hoped he didn’t become a victim of mob justice. (He was Sikh. The girl he struck was black, as were most of the crowd. I’d seen enough of Kenya at that point to determine that in most communities with mixed populations, the Asians and Arabs generally occupy higher socioeconomic strata than the blacks.) I hoped the girl was as resilient and rubbery as children generally are.

I was still pretty wobbly when we entered the airport. The bloke put me on a bench after we checked in and went off to file a lost property claim for his Leatherman and sunglasses, which had been stolen on our flight from Lamu to Nairobi. It took ages, since of course he had to meet everyone on duty at the police desk before the rather simple form could be filled in. Afterward, we were pestered for tips by other officers who pointlessly took down the information from the form. Once we finally managed to rid ourselves of “helpful” people, we entered the gates to have a hasty cup of coffee and scrambled eggs before boarding the flight with five minutes to spare.

On the flight, I wrote madly and watched both “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “The Ghost (Writer)”. The first was entertaining, if a bit too self-consciously parodying. The latter was quite good, although I was a little grumpy to discover that it was a Polanski film. (Yes, I realize that a child molester can also be a brilliant film-maker. Now that I know he’s both, however, I don’t particularly wish to support his work in a conscious fashion.)

The past weeks of functioning as a walking tips dispenser for every person that helped us out had worn down my moral expectations. It was exhausting and debilitating, and it put me on edge. Every courtesy became suspect. It became difficult to tell which gestures were given without an expectation of reciprocity. I wondered, frankly, how any non-Kenyan managed to make and retain Kenyan friends. It was not a question that my experience as a tourist would allow me to answer. It was not a question that Tick Bite Fever, David Bennun’s memoirs of his childhood in post-colonial Kenya, answered. He was clearly enough of a Kenya Cowboy to attend white schools and have mostly white friends. It was not a question our friends could answer, either. They’d only been there six months, and the work colleagues with whom they were most comfortable were other expatriates. (This is not a criticism of them. It took me years to make British friends.)

I’m sorry I’m ending this travelogue on a bit of a downer. Obviously I had some wonderful experiences in Kenya, particularly when observing its great natural beauty. However, you don’t have to be an exceptionally sensitive tourist to be affected by the pervading destitution of the bulk of the human population in the country. There is a tendency in the developed world to romanticize certain types of poverty, I think. For example, when it’s dressed up as culturally significant, like the bomas of the Maasai, or when it isn’t desperate because the people aren’t visibly ill, famished or tugging at your shirtsleeves begging for a few paltry coins. Even so, nearly all of these people would have changed places with me or my friends in a heartbeat. They wouldn’t think about it. They would just go. The kinds of opportunities that are available to us - mobility, modern housing, national services - are simply not there for them. They make do. They smile at the tourists and indulge our whims because it gives them an income. They haven’t much choice if they want to be able to save enough, potentially, to move on to something marginally better. By comparison, our limitations are minimal. In the face of such overwhelming need, I feel powerless. Without completely changing my career or bankrupting myself, there isn’t much I can do to help in a direct way. I already give as much as I can from my monthly salary to charity. I can try to be more grateful for the things I have, and make less effort to obtain things I don’t. It’s the best I can do, and it sure doesn’t feel like much.

In spite of this keen and persistent sense of discomfort, I loved Kenya. It’s a stunning country. I’d return to see it again.

[User Picture]From: cosmiccircus
2010-08-18 19:39 (UTC)
Awww, I looked forward to living vicariously through your Kenya posts! Oh well, I hope you'll upload more photos - I can't get enough of those!

I felt the same way about Egypt, Jordan and Morocco that you did about Kenya by the time you were done. And yet, I was ready to go back to each of them the next week. If only you could get rid of the people! LOL!

I think when I go there (someday) I'll probably spend time there just flying in and going straight to the wilderness lodges. It didn't seem like you really saw that much more that was unique or interesting in the cities - well, maybe mombasa, and I would like to visit the Carnivore restaurant someday...

Overall, great write-ups! You should write for travel mags or blogs!

And I don't know if it's a new photo, but it's new for me, but just wanted to say how I like the avatar you posted for this post.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-19 13:12 (UTC)
Photos in the immediate future are likely to be of this damned Princess Leia costume as I attempt to wrestle it into something that can actually be worn during a 5k race without falling to bits.

If you're really only after wildlife, then I don't see much point in lingering in Kenya's cities. I'd just go straight to the Mara/Serengeti. However, I would have liked to spend more time taking in Mombasa proper, as going straight to the beach resort kind of nixed that.

The avatar isn't from a new photo, but it's one that I forget to use. I'm trying to fix that - otherwise I tend just to rotate between 4-5 of them and I have lots more than that!
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[User Picture]From: wurlitzerprized
2010-08-19 19:55 (UTC)
oof! what a thing to witness on your way out.

however, your trip sounds (and looks) glorious, and i've so enjoyed your travelogue. i've been silently following it all the way through.

i hope you print it up and bind it.

(i know we're supposed to be all digital and eco-conscious, etc; i still think certain things deserve to be preserved on paper, in an album or a book.)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-26 19:48 (UTC)
I think we were pretty lucky not to have seen any other accidents, or worse ones. Apparently they're quite common.

I need to get up the gumption to do the layout of a photobook for this travelogue. I agree with you about preferring paper for certain things. I've finally gotten used to reading & editing journal articles as .docs or .pdfs without printing them out, but I just can't get over my love for paper books.
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[User Picture]From: seismic
2010-08-20 00:56 (UTC)
When I got back from my trip, I took some time to catch up. I have enjoyed reading every syllable of it, in one way or another. Thank you so, so much for the time you've taken to talk about your experiences there. All of them.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-26 19:49 (UTC)
I'm chuffed you made time for the travelogue, and that you don't feel the inclusion of the non-idyllic portions of it detracts from it. Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: painted_dreams
2010-08-20 16:38 (UTC)
That is definitely not a good way to end a trip. I have the same feelings about Mexico... It is a beautiful country with lots of great culture and history but an overwhelming sense of poverty. It follows you around wherever you go in the country. After my grandfather went he vowed never to go back. He couldn't stand to see just how many children were living without.

I know how you feel... I grew up in very fortunate circumstances. I've never known what its like to go without. When I see people who do, it breaks my heart. I want to do more but as you said a massive change would have to be made on my part to do so.

I honestly believe that people can still have a good quality of life.. Material goods and all that jazz... And still give back. If we all gave back and helped, did something however big or small. It would make a difference. The unfortunate thing is that many charities only pour money at the problems, never really fixing it. Creating a relationship of dependency.

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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-26 19:57 (UTC)
I'm not sure I blame the charities for the global failure to eradicate poverty. I think they have really good strategies for dealing with crises caused by poverty in the short term that aren't just throwing money at the problem. I blame governments, because they should be the ones coming up with the long-term strategies for coping with poverty, and they're not.
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[User Picture]From: nimoloth
2010-08-20 18:54 (UTC)
Firstly, I just want to say how much I've been enjoying reading this series travel posts - I've been reading almost exclusively on Google Reader recently and hence have been unable to post comments unfortunately.

Secondly, that's a sucky ending to quite a trip, and I'm sorry you experienced that. You must have been pretty wobbly for quite a while - I think I would be.

My overall impressions of the country, living it vicariously through your posts, is one of awe at how different it is from here, and also (slightly guiltily) one of sympathetic frustration - as in, I feel frustrated and annoyed on your behalf at all the people trying to get tips out of you or just being generally incompetent. I think it would really get on my nerves and make me really uncomfortable, and hence, I'm not sure having read all your posts that I would actually want to visit the country.

I'm wondering how different it is from Tanzania, it's southern neighbour. My cousin and his wife live there, and my brother and his wife have visited - it sounded pretty amazing, but they didn't mention the kind of poverty and pestering you experienced. It could have been quite a different kind of trip though. It's not that they live like expats though - they've integrated somewhat, and speak the local language. Some Masai guys are employed as guards for their house, and they took my brother and his wife to see their village, and they also went around town in a not tourist way (town being Arusha). They went on safari too, and to a coastal resort that my cousin goes to quite often to chill out. It all sounded much more relaxing than your experience.

My cousin also said to us that when travelling, you don't want to end up in Nairobi at any point. I don't know if he just meant the airport, or the city in general and I'm not sure why.

Anyway, I'm rambling now, I shall stop!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-26 20:07 (UTC)
Thanks very much for letting me know you enjoyed reading the travelogue, even the difficult bits. Yes, it was quite a stressful place to visit, particularly Nairobi. It's just a little too big a city for its own good. It doesn't have the infrastructure or the finances to support the populations that lives there, and the poverty of the suburbs surrounding the city is really dire. I suspect Tanzania suffers from at least some of the corruption problems that Kenya does, and that the cities (Dar es Salaam and Dodoma) have similar, though probably smaller, slums to Kibera. But perhaps it is all better managed there? I don't know.
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