Thursday, May 12, 2011

"We Once Went To Africa - Part Two"

Dateline: Nairobi

We had traveled ten thousand miles in a very short time. It was exhausting. I mean, it’s not like we walked or anything, but, you know, all those time zones, no leg room on the plane. Plus, we were riddled with DDT. (See: Yesterday’s posting.)

It was now mid-afternoon, though, in our heads, it was yesterday. We were seriously disoriented. Lacking the energy to do anything else, we put on our bathing suits, and we went down to sit by the pool.

Here’s how messed up we were. We neglected to put on sunscreen. On a sunny day in Africa. In the middle of the afternoon. A mistake, which we might have corrected. Had we not immediately fallen asleep on our loungers.

When we woke up, we were lobsters. People were choosing us for their dinner. Discovering our condition, we gingerly made our way – when you’re sunburnt all over, there’s a terrible chafing issue when you walk – back to our room, to take a bath in aloe vera.

When we opened the door to our room, we found three hotel employees in there. They seemed surprised to see us, even though…it was our room. They quickly offered explanations for their presence. One explained they were cleaning the bathroom. Another was checking the mini-bar. And the third one was dusting the curtains.

What we later discovered was that one – or a combination of them – was robbing us blind.

But we didn’t know that at the time. We didn’t know anything at the time. Except we were two Jewish blisters.

That evening, when it cooled down, we took a stroll around the area. It was a very short stroll. Everywhere we went, we became disturbingly aware of – I don’t want to say “gangs”, because they were wearing identifying jackets – but roaming bands of angry-looking young men. We decided to return to the hotel.

At which point, Dr. M announced that she wanted to go home.

The place was just too different. It felt scarily uncomfortable.

I patiently explained to her that we had just arrived. And going home, after having just traveled half way around the world was not something that should be considered without thoughtful consideration.

Nairobi, especially Nairobi at night, did seem precariously unnerving, but our plans called for us to leave Nairobi the next morning for a three day excursion to what, we were told, were the extremely idyllic Seychelles Islands. Things, I assured her, would be cheerier there.

We decided to calm our culture-shocked sensibilities by watching TV in the room. There, I discovered what, to me, was a remarkable phenomenon.

The show was called The Palm Beach Club. It involved a trio of musicians, decked out like be-bop hipsters – overly tight-fitting suits, narrow ties, narrow lapels, emotion-free faces – playing the piano, bass, and drums. And the music they were playing – in Africa – was American fifties jazz.

“Incredulity” was “writ large” in my popping eyes, my dropped jaw and my perplexedly furrowed brow. American musicians had co-opted identifiable, African rhythms, changed them around a little, and here were African musicians playing what the Americans had co-opted. The “biologicals” imitating the adoptees.

Why weren’t they playing the original stuff? Probably because they enjoyed playing what they were playing. What did I expect, throbbing drumbeats, and dancing around a fire?

It was their country. They could play whatever they wanted. Not what I expected to hear, my expectations the product of a lifelong over-indulgence in Tarzan pictures.

As it turned out, the cool sounds relaxed our jangled spirits. We did not depart for home that evening.

The next morning, while enjoying a delicious breakfast of maize (cornmeal) pancakes and exquisite Kenyan coffee, I noticed a headline featured in large print in the local newspaper:


I immediately panicked. We had fallen into a war zone. We’d be taken hostage. And promptly beheaded.

I took a breath, and went back to the story below the headline. The headline, I belatedly realized, was on the Back Page of the newspaper. It was the “Sports Section.“ And the story concerned an upcoming Kenya-Zimbabwe soccer game. Which the Kenya team was, reportedly, confident of winning.

Was I totally spooked to be in Africa? Yes. Were my fears justified? No. Though they were not entirely unjustified either. As I will currently demonstrate.

After breakfast, we were picked up by our local tour company representative and transported to the airport, for our flight to the Seychelles. I had learned somewhere that people are forbidden from taking Kenyan currency out of the country.

Before departing, visitors are required to convert their “shilingi” into another currency, or spend their remaining “shilingi” at the airport gift shop, on such “can’t live without” items as hand-carved napkin rings, with animal heads on them. Which may or may not have been manufactured in Kenya.

I had in my possession the “shilingi” equivalent of about thirteen dollars, American. But I knew that, after our side trip to the Seychelles, we’d be returning to Kenya to go on our photographic safari. I asked our tour representative what I should do about my remaining “shilingi.”

The tour representative advised me that, since the amount was so small, and since I’d be returning to Kenya in three days, there’d be no problem taking the money out of the country, and I had nothing to worry about.

We lined up to get on the plane. At the “gate”, I was instructed to hand over my airplane ticket, my passport and my wallet.

The Customs Official found the “shilingi” in my wallet.

And he immediately hit the roof.

Suddenly, a curtain was drawn around me on all sides. I was now alone with an imposing-looking Customs Official, who began screaming at me. A minute – though it felt like an hour – later, the Customs Official’s superior came in, to find out what the fuss was about. When the Customs Official explained what had happened, his superior started screaming at me too.

“Why did you do this? You cannot do this! You are forbidden to remove our currency from the country! It is against the law!

To which my feeble defense was,

“They told me it was okay.”

I realized this was not a strong argument. But I was too frazzled to think clearly. The words, “And he was never seen again” swirled anxiously in my head. I imagined myself shaking hands with my new cellmate, Nelson Mandela.

“What are you in for?”

“Insurrection. And you?”

“Smuggling ‘shilingi’.”

“That’s a shame. By the way, your xenophobic fantasy is sadly lacking in geographical accuracy.”

In the end, the Customs Officials did not confiscate my money. They did, however, allow me to contribute it voluntarily.

At which point, they swept open the curtain, and permitted me to leave.

Tomorrow: A too brief visit to an island paradise.

1 comment:

Tony Fernandez said...

If only you'd had Tommy Tuttle from Tacoma, Washington w/you to teach the custom official the Washington State Fight Song. Very entertaining, tho you probably didn't quite see it that way at the time. Funny - ironic - about the jazz trio. Recently heard some Indian jazz that was quite good. Apparently, jazz has become very popular among a cadre of very talented Indian musicians. I speak of the S. Asian Indians, not the casino owners of the Americas.

Maybe you should have put your 13 shilingi on Kenya's soccer team.

Looking forward to part 3 of your Innocents Abroad.