DAY 70 THURSDAY 16th FEBRUARY 2017. KAYONZA, RWANDA
In the end, I rode right bang through the centre of Kigale, following my well developed bump of direction and found myself on the road to the east without a flaw. Andrew, the hotel manager in Nyanza wasn’t comforting about the long cut that avoided the city and the day was heavily overcast, draining the contrast and colour from the pretty Rwandan landscape. I decided just to fight it out with the city traffic, which here in Rwanda is pretty disciplined and polite, lacking the murderous instincts of Ugandan drivers. Kigale is a small city anyway. They are still digging up the wide road outside the dull guest house I used at the weekend and no diversions are ever signposted in African cities so, knowing just enough of the shape of the city from my brief walkabouts, I took to some cross-country antics down bumpy, rutted unmade lanes and found my way onto the sweeping avenue to the east.
It wasn’t an interesting ride, all the earlier part I had ridden before – twice. I was sorely tempted to turn off back to Kibuye, but my Rwandan permits only last until Sunday, so it was cutting it fine. Anyhow, I have no idea how the roads and terrain, or the people and interest, will be in my brief trip across the top of Tanzania, so I pressed on, looking only with regret at the turning back over those fine mountains to Kibuye and the peaceful lakeside scenes.
The eastern part of Rwanda is much lower and gently rolling than the more dramatic steep mountains down the west side, sliced by Lake Kivu from the Congolese mountains in another arm of the African Rift Valley that is so much a feature of travel in these countries. Once clear of the traffic and business of Kigale, I was back onto a wide, good quality road between the intense cultivation that makes up so much of this small country. It’s densely populated too, and I seldom leave habitations along the main roads that I have been using all across the country. And where there’s habitation there are people walking the roadsides, bicycle taxis struggling up the long hills – or freewheeling at alarming speeds down the other sides. As before, some of the people wave and greet, others stare impassively, but not aggressively; I am just too far beyond their ken to make contact, however casual.
In Rwamagana, a well developed town 30 miles from Kigale, I needed a stop and a drink. I pulled into quite the poshest, most snooty hotel I have seen in Rwanda and asked for a flask of African tea. In my very faded motocross trousers (that do very well as a disguise of relative poverty in rural areas) and my dust stained, faded jacket, I didn’t look the part for that hotel, and I could see from the welcome – frosty might describe it – that I was considered below the expected customer standards as smartly suited men and brightly clad women came and went from a conference of the Ministry of Health. But so far as I am concerned, the Min of Health has NO business squandering the taxpayers’ money of this poor nation on such pomp and pretentiousness and needs to be brought down a peg or two! It’s all show and no knickers to me, this conceit, so popular amongst the self-claimed ‘first class’ of these poverty stricken nations. The tea was good, despite the disdain of the staff!
Thanks to the ease of my passage through small Kigale, I was at Kayonza in the mid-afternoon. The Tanzania border is about fifty or sixty miles from here, in the bottom corner of Rwanda. I didn’t intend to cross today; border formalities are best approached in the morning, I find. Then at least there’s less pressure for the tedious stuff of bureaucracy, visas and money changing. So it seemed sensible to look for a place to sleep and have a relaxing afternoon. My free tourist map, given to me by Marechal at the Ugandan border some days ago, on which I have relied for information, showed a guest house by the long, sinuous, shallow Lake Muhazi, called the Seeds of Peace Centre. It’s delightfully situated just beside the quiet lake with lawns running down to the still water. I’ve a good enough room looking out on the lake. It’s quiet and reasonable at £15 again. The only drawback is that it is run by Episcopalians and is thus ‘dry’. However, ten minutes’ walk down the lakeside is the Jambo Bar, an empty place of beer umbrellas and plastic chairs with a hideous and fringed stork strutting about and barking at me. It looks as if it’s made from pipe cleaners and felt, rather than feathers and bones.
I’ll be sorry to leave the astonishing cleanliness of this country. The people take a pride in their surroundings that is unusual anywhere in the world of my knowledge. Even the roadsides are often planted with colourful trimmed shrubs and neat grass verges. Topiary is very popular and I see many tidy displays. It is heartening to see such visual awareness and pride. Oddly enough, though, another observation I have made since being in Rwanda is that I have had to become accustomed to the strong smell of sweaty bodies! Personal dress, so often at odds with the dwellings and surroundings of most other African countries, where great pride is taken in personal appearance and incredible cleanliness despite dust and intense heat, is here the scruffiest I have seen. I accept that this is a poor society and money is a rare commodity, but where so many African nations spend a disproportionate quantity of their small personal wealth on clothes, even second hand ones, and soap, Rwandans don’t seem to care much! People do a lot of heavy manual work here; hacking at the soil with hoes, pedalling huge loads up long hills on old bicycles, carrying almost everything on their heads and backs, toiling at incredible tasks – and I have become used, even at thirty miles an hours as I pass gangs of bicycle taxi-men or resting fellows by the roadside, to wafts of sour sweat smells. All part of the rich pattern of East African life, I suppose. And I’ve also seen the amount of water that has to be carried up those hills too. Maybe washing one’s body is a low priority. I guess it would be for me if I had to lug the water as far as so many Rwandans do!
DAY 71 FRIDAY 17th FEBRUARY 2017. BIHARAMULO, TANZANIA
I rode far too long and late today, forced by circumstances, and only found a place to sleep as the light was failing. It’s something I usually rigorously try to avoid, but crossing borders sometimes just throw things out. Oh well, all’s well etc…
The first real rains came this morning, starting soon after dawn and falling hard and constantly for several hours. So my day started late as I lingered in the shelter of the guest house reception hut until almost noon. My breakfast was the best yet – for £2. Fresh pineapple (as usual), African tea (as usual for the coffee is normally so bad), a Spanish omelette (as usual, but this one was generous and tasty) and a delicious pancake that came with a pot of local honey. It’s just as well it was so good, since supper only came late, in a dingy beer bar here in this small town. Supper was a sort of barbecue-in-the-bag chicken with vegetables done in foil over charcoal. It would have been good had the chicken not been quite such a vintage hen that had been smashed to pieces with a hammer before cooking and had to be pulled apart with greasy fingers in an almost dark bar! Still, by then I was just grateful to be sitting down with some food and a bottle of milk stout…
So by noon I rode away, into a slight drizzle that slowly died away after the long downpour. By early afternoon the sun was beginning to break through and by the time all the border formalities were done, the afternoon was clear and sparkling and the scenery splendid: large vistas over big rolling mountains covered in that sort of bush country that we think of when we hear the word ‘Africa’, a sort of cross between brilliantly green rolling veldt and acacia covered ridges thick with long grass and scattered trees. The mountains fell away dramatically to a vibrantly, dazzling green flat valley with a shining green floor that looked like a fitted, growing carpet.
The border was rather impressive and well coordinated with all the business concentrated in one building depending which direction you are travelling. Normally, borders are separated; all the formalities of the country you are leaving carried out one side of the barrier/ bridge/ no man’s land/ pass, and the other papers all done separately, by different nationals in the next country. Here, I rode through a long chicane past the building on the Rwandan side to a single large matching building on the Tanzanian side, where the outgoing passport window was adjacent to the incoming and so on. It did make for efficiency. But everyone seemed a bit phased by the Englishman taking a Kenyan motorbike from Rwanda through Tanzania, and seemed confused as to what I should do and what papers were required. In the end, I have a transit visa valid for a couple of weeks, that doesn’t allow me to tour – but I’m not sure how anyone would know if I did anyway, so long as I stay in the roughly northern area. Then a pleasant official made me out some form of document that seems to be a sort of temporary import permit to take my bike across the country. Well, I don’t care. The transit visa was £24 instead of a full visa for £40, the permit was free, and there was nowhere to buy insurance anyway. “You will have to buy it in Mwanza, I think…” pondered the official, who seemed so confused. By the time I get to Mwanza, I’ll be most of the way across Tanzania back to Kenya!
At last I rode away from the border. I am totally lost without a map. I do like to have a map and know where I am and what’s around me. They are scarce in East Africa and none of the old ones I have from Rico’s collection covers this part of Tanzania south of Lake Victoria. I asked a fellow in the immigration hall as I waited for my visa to be processed and he wrote down the names of the towns I will pass. He intimated there’d be a decent sized town with plenty of guest houses about 24 kilometres along my way, where I could stay tonight. I suppose it was the ugly, dusty, straggly village filled with parked petrol tankers that I passed through after about 18 kilometres, for I saw no other. By then I was well past it, and it hadn’t looked promising anyhow. So I battled on. There was a town, or what I thought must be a town as there was a major road junction there, in 68 kilometres. Sadly, though, the road was appalling, peppered with potholes like tank traps, many of them six inches deep and sharp-edged. Half the road was also in some state of being rebuilt – on a very long timescale by the look of it. By now the afternoon was advancing – and I’d moved forward an hour back to East Africa Time.
Eventually, worn down by the intense concentration that potholes require, especially in late afternoon when the low sun casts shadows of the roadside trees across the tarmac for confusion, I reached the junction and found the town to be a very down at heel, grubby rural village of shacks and stalls and mud. I looked for accommodation and was shown two sheds, for they really were little more, in grubby brick yards. Yes, these were the places I frequented on my early parsimonious travels! The price was all of £2 for a basic room with a metal framed bed, a foam mattress that wouldn’t have borne much inspection, and a few bits of sheet. I guess there was a pit latrine and a bucket bathroom with cold water. I ALMOST took one of those grim cells; I mean, I am not unaccustomed to that way of life at all! What actually put me off was that almost everyone who talked to me appeared to be drunk. That didn’t augur well for a night’s rest and security. I decided not…
So another 30 kilometres had to be tackled, with the sun now drooping in the sky, the clouds tinging with a cloudy sunset. Fortunately, those last kilometres were on a smooth fast road and I managed to coax almost 55 miles an hour out of my little blue bike. As the light failed, I reached Biharamulo, to find it a proper town of a backwoods sort but with simple guest houses that were a cut above the basic sheds. By chance, as I rode, I recollected that the name Biharamulo was familiar and that I had been looking at the internet a few days ago to investigate the map of northern Tanzania – in the absence of a paper one – and happened upon a blog website that mentioned a place here called the Old Boma. Well, any recommendation, even from someone’s old blog, is better than searching at random at sunset. I asked my way here and have a large room of an old fashioned sort that you find in somewhat run down places round the Mediterranean, opening off a yard behind what’s obviously a collection of relatively historic buildings from early colonial days – the town fort and administrative buildings. It’s quite a fine location with thick walls and that early colonial African feel. I’ve an en suite room, which sounds grand but is a lot less pretentious than that, with polished concrete, worn painted floor and stained whitewash. But the bed’s clean and about half the bathroom fitting work, a pretty good average. It’ll do for the night. The price is certainly right: £4.40 – a record low for this trip. A middle aged South African couple are camping out in the yard with their expedition vehicle. Solvieg and Ian live in Gordon’s Bay, where I stayed in February 2015, the closest I could afford to stay to Cape Town. They’ve driven up and are now doing a similar circuit to me in the opposite direction.
I’d been intrigued for a while how the change back from right to left side of the road would be achieved at this land border. Between Uganda and Rwanda it was just a 100 metre long piece of road between two gates, controlled by soldiers. On the Uganda side they opened the left gate, and at the other end of the short no man’s land, the soldier opened the right hand gate. On this border it was very neatly done. The road through the border area was a dual carriageway with a central barrier. At one point the road curved out into a figure of eight with instruction signs that instructed ‘straight across ONLY’. Automatically I changed from the right carriageway to the left carriageway. Very clever. A tidy touch that rather made my day.
It’s good to be able to communicate easily again, now I am back in anglophone Africa. I did miss that in Rwanda, compounded by the apparent reserve of the people. (I don’t get many portraits when I can’t communicate). But I did appreciate the cleanliness and visible pride that Rwandans take in their surroundings. I rode through a number of villages today that had been planted with avenues of brilliantly yellow flowering trees. Verges are well kept and households enjoy their clipped and trimmed hedges and even make formal little gardens in the French chateaux style of geometric low hedges and tiny patches of lawn in front of their simple houses. These little efforts make a very good impression, especially on this continent where I often accuse the populous of being visually illiterate about and careless of their surroundings. Rwanda was a fine surprise, a magnificent landscape, intensely cultivated, well cared for, with good roads and generally excellent infrastructure, uncorrupted officials and a general sense of calm. If they would only change the national greeting from the outstretched palm and the imperative demand, “…money!” it’d be even finer. As it is, that wasn’t particularly aggressively done, just habitual, so when I kept my cool and just said, “No!” they didn’t seem very offended, since they were only trying it on anyway.
I didn’t mean to ride 150 miles, especially having set off only at noon. I keep reminding myself that it is only 9.30 as I am writing, not 10.30 as the clock tells me. I’m weary enough though that I will probably take note of the new East African time rather than the Central African time. Time to sleep.
DAY 72 SATURDAY 18th FEBRUARY 2017. MWANZA, TANZANIA
The little blue bike has done well today, bbattling along for over 150 more miles across the top pf Tanzania. It was a long slog, but there wasn’t much to attract or delay me, just mile upon mile of quite attractive green bush country. The early part of the ride was hilly, the hills flattening out into gentle rises and falls towards afternoon. For much of the day my road seemed to weave miraculously around and between thick grey clouds that always seemed to threaten rain, but happily never dropped any on me. Later, it became a sparkling afternoon with that ‘big sky’ I associate so much with Africa. We blew along at 45 to 50mph for much of the way – after the first forty miles…
This is the main road in this part of Tanzania and I was horrified, some five kilometres out of Biharamulo when I turned at a signed junction for Mwanza, and a few hundred yards later was on a derelict, rutted and pitted gravel road. If this was to last until Mwanza I doubted my sanity in selecting to return to Kenya by Tanzania. Twenty kilometres of this punishment gave way to the preparations for a new road, fairly smooth, level hard dirt, interrupted, as they do, by speed humps of piles of gravel that had to be negotiated every few hundred yards. It was wearing. These surfaces take plenty of concentration, but it was better, at least, than yesterday’s killer potholes. I’m always conscious, on these roads, that even a small mistake could end my journey quite badly! Still, I am used to that by now and also to riding on all sorts of surfaces. After 35 miles the new road began, smooth tarmac all the way to Mwanza! A great relief.
I batted along, stopping for a flask of African tea (but being served a flask of hot water and a tin of the most disgusting, cheap coffee powder! Sometimes you just have to accept fate here in Africa) in a bustling ribbon of town that I cannot name as I am still not back on any map in my bag. Tomorrow should see that occurrence, fortunately. I feel so lost without a map.
About thirty kilometres before Mwanza I enjoyed a break while I took a car ferry across an arm of Lake Victoria – which only came in sight a short way before the ferry. The slowest car ferry in the world took half an hour to cross the calm water, not more than a mile wide, a pleasant break for me and fun to be on Lake Victoria for a short time. The traffic on the other side, it was now five o’clock, was less enjoyable, but I ride like an African now so was soon through it and circuiting Mwanza in search of a place to sleep. I wanted to be on the lakeside but those hotels were expensive $50 places (I’m always suspicious when I am quoted in American dollars, and the one that attracted me, being a Chinese owned hotel, would not bargain, I knew. The Chinese run their businesses with rods of unsmiling iron and would allow no mere black African the right to negotiate). Eventually, I found a place for £6.50 – hot and stuffy – and went back to the smart Chinese place for supper and a beer on the side of the lake. Well, my eyes’ll be shut for nine hours, so why pay for a view? I can always go back for an African tea – or an instant coffee, you take pot luck – in the morning to enjoy the view for about thirty bob!
Actually, the view is rather good. Mwanza is attractively situated in an area full of those odd, smooth, balanced rocks that teeter atop one another in crazy giant’s play-brick heaps. Some buildings have been attached to them here and there and many stand along the shore, some with feet in the lake or with attractive clipped grass around them. Those were surrounded by wedding picture groups this Saturday afternoon. Small ferries come and go to islands out in the lake, splashing past the shoreline hotels and gardens of this, one of Tanzania’s biggest towns and its major lake port.
It was already eleven when I finally left the ‘boma’ in Biharamulo. I awoke to bright sunshine and then a knock on my door to say that Solveig was preparing breakfast for me, a kind gesture from fellow travellers. We exchanged views and ideas for the better part of three hours, sharing so many opinions and loves of Africa, and agreeing how much better we enjoy being older as travellers. Solvieg (her parents were Norwegian) is full of life, a cheerful person and outgoing. I rather hope they’ll keep in touch now and again, and maybe I will one day see them in the Western Cape, except it seems that their chosen travel time is much the same as mine and their travels subsidised by renting their seaside house in Gordons Bay to English people for winter. It’s fun to meet people on the road for, of course, we tend to share views of life thanks to our chosen way of spending so much of our time and money.
My muscles are getting very fidgety. I sat for about six hours on that not very comfortable little bike in a lot of very fresh Equatorial air – and the mozzies are eating me alive. Time to get out of the bar and under the net. My motorbike is next to the reception desk tonight!
DAY 73 SUNDAY 19th FEBRUARY 2017. MUSOMA, TANZANIA
Another slog across the top of Tanzania. Today it took all my stubbornness after a night of bad sleep. My room was very hot, the fan rattled and shook and a cheap hotel on a Saturday night is seldom a place of peace, with doors banging and people shut out of rooms in the middle of the night trying to wake drunken partners, such that in the end I was reduced to ear plugs. All that and I ate too much too late last night. So today was a bit of a struggle of mind over strength. But it ended well.
The road was generally empty and the landscape became flatter and drier as I rode eastwards, punctuated by many straggly villages of mud-walled houses and zinc or palm roofs behind dusty roadsides. Huge herds of cows were driven along the roadsides for this is Mara country, the home of cattle-herders. A couple of more sizeable towns were a bit more colourful and the heat under the sun was oppressive but clouds filled enough of the sky to provide a good deal of shade today. It was, though, a long 120 miles.
By only mid-afternoon I was approaching Musoma, now coming back up the east side of Lake Victoria towards the Kenyan border, another hundred or so miles to the north. I had decided to stop at Musoma and relax for the afternoon, hoping I’d find a quiet, pleasant hotel for the night. Four kilometres short of the town I saw a smallish, plush looking hotel standing back from the road amongst trees and behind it I could see a garden stretching down to the lake shore. I turned around to investigate, without even continuing to the town to check other options. I was warmly welcomed by the manager, Steven, who understood by my weary, dusty state that a glass of juice would help, whether I stayed or not, a kindly gesture that persuaded me to take a room. I’ve an enormous room, with bathroom and a bizarre, flouncy and over the top bed (sometimes African taste can be so dreadful!) for £15. By 3.30 I was ensconced in the gardens at the back, with Lake Victoria stirred to choppiness by the strong wind that had bugged me for the last fifty miles of my 120 mile ride.
Soon after lunch – a mere literary expression, since I haven’t had such a thing for the past six weeks; I always go from breakfast to supper unfed when I am on these journeys, mainly because I doubt I’d find anything to attract me in the way of a snack – soon after what would have been lunchtime if I took it, I passed the far western end of the great Serengeti Plains. Perhaps one of the best known, most visited African locations, it stretches eastwards from Lake Victoria for hundreds of miles. My experience lasted about ten miles. I’d have liked to see the ‘herds of wildebeests’ that are not visible from TQ9 (my Torquay postcode!) but all I saw was a few grazing antelopes and a handful of bison of some sort. My, it was flat! I am really quite happy that I and my motorbike can’t cross that vast plain. Anyway, it probably costs an arm and a couple of legs to pay the entrance fee, were I allowed to. Solveig and Ian were laughing yesterday at the ridiculous charges these countries have imposed on foreign tourists to get into national parks. “We come from South Africa! We have pretty much the best parks and they don’t cost anything like here! We haven’t been paying for any either!”
These past three days I have met few people who speak English. I assume that not many wazungus come this way. Around here they are more likely with the proximity to the Masai Mara and Serengeti but where I have been there’s not a lot of reason for casual tourists to pass, only ‘overlanders’ like me. I find it disappointing when I can’t communicate. After all, I come on these journeys to meet and talk to people, maybe that’s why I have enjoyed southern Africa so well these past years for there the majority speak English.
This hotel, the Mara Paradise (a slight over statement!) is run by some church or other – the Africa Inland Church, it appears. Beer is only available by order from outside! The bishop doesn’t approve, apparently. I checked with Steven that I wouldn’t offend the bishop if I ordered a bottle, and here I sit in the garden as my supper is prepared. I shall sleep even earlier than usual tonight, my strength is at a very low ebb!
DAY 74 MONDAY 20th FEBRUARY 2017. MBITA, KENYA
One of the real joys of life is to enjoy a good night’s sleep. You’ll never catch me admitting to any infirmity of age, but I guess I AM getting older and a long day’s ride after unsatisfying sleep, such as I had in Mwanza, perhaps has more effect than it did twenty years ago! That’s as near an admission as I will make.
I’m back in Kenya tonight. I’ve been ‘on the road’ for 44 days so far and have only about 14 left. Over the next couple of days I will complete my circuit of Lake Victoria. Tonight finds me on just about the most easterly extreme of the lake, on a large gulf that penetrates eastwards from the lake. I am heading northwards towards Kisumu, a large town in western Kenya. Mbita is a small town at the causeway that connects Rasinga Island to the mainland. It’s an unusually expensive area; finding an affordable place to sleep was tiresome. In one ‘resort’ they wanted an unnegotiable £29 to sleep in a tent! Other quite dingy places asked me £23 for places I’d turn my nose up at for £15 elsewhere in Kenya, but I finally haggled my best room yet for a one third discount at £16 – my budget. I’ve a room in a newish hotel that hasn’t yet had time to deteriorate (almost ALL the bathroom fittings work, even if there’s no loo seat. Better than the one last night with a crack in it that viciously nipped your bum!). It’s on the top floor with a balcony and a pretty spectacular lake vista, plus as it’s a corner room, a view across the small town, with the sea on both sides of the causeway. I’m sitting now in the yard at the back with a much-needed Tusker. In a couple of years the yard will be disguised by bushes and bourganvillea but for now it is rather exposed to the dusty track behind the hotel. Maybe in Africa it’ll only take a year; things grow so fast here, given some water.
Parts of my journey today were through handsome scenery, others rather tedious dry bush country. With the lake on my left all the way, at one point I climbed through some hills with astoundingly long views down onto the plains of what eventually becomes the Serengeti and Masia Mara. The hills were scattered with those odd upstanding and balanced rocks that must, I suppose, have been left behind in some ice age by gigantic glaciers. As I rode I realised that the rocks are granite of some sort, for I passed many people engaged, with fire and hammers, in breaking stones. Here and there men tended fires to heat the rocks and split them asunder. In other places women and men sat atop small piles of grey stones wielding hammers, endlessly breaking stones into smaller stones. Imagine having to make a living this way. I can’t… In Western countries we used to use this activity as a punishment for criminals; here it is a way of earning enough to eke out a minimal existence in rural Africa: breaking rocks to afford dry maize to make an unappetising meal of ughali and meagre vegetables; to live in a room of mud, sticks and straw; sleep on a piece of thin, stained foam – or a hard mat of reeds; and die at fifty – if you’re lucky. Travelling in Africa: once again I feel so glad that I can come and look and go away, back to my very privileged life.
Oh SHIT! I am within a couple of hundred metres of a bloody mosque!!!!! Aaaaaarrrgggghhhhh, Alllllllaaaaaaaaahhhawwwaaaawwwaawwaaabbbaaaagggaaa, Allllllaaaaaahhhh, eeeeeekkeeekeeaaalallllaaaaaa! Waaaaaaaaa, aaaaaaaaaah, waaaaaaa, eeeeaaaaaahhhhhh! How can this awful drone and tuneless noise be WORSHIP? Gosh, it’s so drearily dismal. The local muezzin gets ‘Nil points’ for his intonation of the bleak and dispiriting prayers. It’s such a joyless, wretched noise! Allluuuuuaaah Ackbaaaar! Uuuuuuaaaallllaaaahh…. woooowwwwwoo ackbaaaar! I’ve heard this prayer so many times, often in the middle of the bloody night, and it only gets worse…
Ear plugs then, tonight…
It was with a small sense of relief that I got out of Tanzania. There were traffic policemen everywhere – with, it must be admitted, reasonable driving standards, for traffic slows for all speed limits as fines are quickly and efficiently imposed. I certainly notice the very bad driving in Kenya where speed is all, despite the national obsession with spring-breaking speed humps. The traffic laws of Tanzania are being upheld by large numbers of police and it’s working. Perhaps Kenya could employ more traffic cops and less speed humps. But Kenyan police would need a purge first for they are sadly so corrupt. But my relief wasn’t at getting away from speed traps and policemen – in a way, I welcomed THEM! No, it was that I travelled across 500 miles of that country uninsured. I doubt the insurance would have been worth much more than the paper on which it was written, but I do try to avoid any excuse for policemen to hassle me on my travels, and I was stopped a few times, fortunately only for a look at my license.
A sudden violent storm has blown up. Frequent power cuts are at least interrupting the muezzin, such that over dinner I got a fit of giggles that I tried to suppress so as not to give offence. I’ve come back up to my room in the top of this tower of a building, the highest in town. Shoddily built, even in a new hotel none of the windows fit very well, there’s no window catches on the windward side, so I’ve tied them with socks to muffle the muezzin. I just ate supper downstairs in the sort of well around which the hotel is built – so that the noise of the interminable TV, for every activity in most of Africa is accompanied by TV (whatever happened to silence?) – echoes up and down the hotel. When Fred, the receptionist with whom I had negotiated, opened my room for me, he immediately switched on the TV, as if I would be desperate for some crap, facile, mind-numbing ‘entertainment’. For supper I ate tilapia since I am opposite the biggest lake in Africa. Tilapia with shredded green spinach and stodgy ughali. A nutritious meal, but I hate eating with my fingers. However, my pride as an experienced traveller won’t allow me to ask for a knife and fork! Since childhood, my mother used to say, I was always washing my hands, and to this day I have a deep distaste of grease on my fingers. Try eating tilapia with THAT handicap! When in Rome…
The lights are going on and off like a glitterball just now, strobing with the intense wind that is buffeting the hotel. Once again, I don’t mind rain while I am drinking my evening beer. Let it rain! So long as tomorrow the sun shines as usual.
I passed no less than eight dead dogs on the road today, surely a record? All dogs in Africa seem to be of one generic breed, pointed nose, sharp ears, long legs and skinny bodies – not attractive animals, and almost none of them kept as pets. Life’s too demanding for that luxury.
Wow! This is a dramatic storm! How great to be indoors with such a view when the lightning comes. The room’s dark as the power’s off but electricity lights the sky and the almost invisible lake behind a wall of rain that roars on the steel roof overhead and courses down the ill-fitting patio doors to the rain-slashed, wind-lashed balcony, where the wicker chair has impaled itself against the railings. I shall sleep with the curtains open to the balcony tonight and have that view of Lake Victoria to wake to. Haha! Life’s good sometimes!
Oh, except the moaning of the dismal muezzin will probably beat the sun to it, wailing next door… Well, ear plugs won’t spoil the view.
DAY 75 TUESDAY 21st FEBRUARY 2017. KERICHO, KENYA
What ear plugs can do for muezzins and cockerels, they sadly fail to do for the base beat of the mechanical modern ‘music’ largely created by sound engineers, not by anyone with compositional talents, that pound on until one in the morning. “Oh, Africans, they like it like that,” said Fred, with an unapologetic laugh when I suggested it might be antisocial and he should consider shooting the people by the lakeside. I have frequently found that most people in Africa have a FAR higher tolerance for noise than me. I have seen them sit a few feet from wardrobe-sized vibrating speakers while I was physically distressed yards away. Is it any physiological difference in our ears or just me being weak?
A case in point tonight in Kericho. I have had to retreat into the bar of the hotel from the balcony to keep warm. Bass-tuned speakers are pumping out ‘music’ of sorts PLUS the TV is blaring at the same time in the same room. Three TVs, to be precise, tuned to two different channels!
So another disturbed sleep last night. Being one of the world’s lightest sleepers AND a world traveller is difficult. Fortunately, tonight I am at the furthest corner of the hotel from this bar.
Circling around in Kericho, tea capital of Kenya, looking for an affordable hotel, it was again difficult. “You won’t find anything for your budget here! Kericho is growing so fast and there are no good places that cheap. You might get a place in the centre of town, but it won’t be a good place!” one receptionist in an overpriced tarty place dismissed my chances.
‘Huh! You don’t know me!’ I thought and rode out of town a couple of kilometres and found a perfectly acceptable place for a fraction over a tenner, including breakfast and hot water, well below even my budget.
I’ve left Lake Victoria and its clammy heat and mosquitoes and ridden somewhat inland and 900 cooler metres higher to the amazingly fertile hills of Kericho, surrounded by the beauty of tea estates. These are the biggest estates and this area produces much of Kenya’s tea, and Kenya is the third largest tea producer in the world. Here there is a microclimate such that rain falls most afternoons, producing just the conditions for tea propagation but not for motorcycle touring, but once again I was safely in the hotel before the rain came, all but a few drops as I rode about the well developed town, complete with a range of high rise buildings that I don’t remember being here fifteen years ago.
Well, I have braved the outside terrace again! The pounding of the music and the confusion of the TV as well was just too much for sensitive me. I’ve fetched my fleece and jacket instead. Everyone around me is extremely friendly, many making formal greetings, handshakes and name swapping, as is the very polite Kenyan way. It’s interesting, I am communicating so much more on a very human level now I am back in Kenya – as, indeed I enjoyed so much in Uganda. Rwanda and Tanzania just don’t have that outgoing, congenial habit. As customers pass me here, they give me a big, happy smile in greeting and make some congenial aside. Yes, I am happy to be back with gregarious people. I so love to travel in places where I am able to connect and interact so simply, on equal terms and with wide smiles and kindness and politeness. Kenyans, like Ugandans, always react to a smile! It’s simplistic to make judgements on four days’ experience, but I didn’t find the northern Tanzanians very receptive to my approaches, and as for Rwandans, I just felt as if I was such an unknown that I might be from another planet. Kenyans are urbane, generally quite well educated and familiar and confident with English. We can joke together; maybe THAT’S what I’ve been missing! So much of casual social intercourse requires that jocular familiarity that really only comes when two peoples share an understanding of language.
My ride was pleasant enough, the lake away to my left much of the way, passing through straggly villages with hills to the right hand horizon. It was warm and the traffic light as I was on a B road until I intersected one of the main north/ south highways, which was actually narrower and older than the roads of the morning. At the junction I stopped for a flask of tea (yes, Alice, tea!) at a roadside food kiosk, serving the usual fare of ughali, chapatis, goat and oily vegetables. The business was run by Agneta, a smiling matronly woman with a cheery red cap. Refreshed by her brew, we chatted a bit and she told me of a fine short cut from where I was to Kericho; a lovely minor road that climbed into the forests, back to the Kenya Highlands that are so attractive, and ultimately to the hills of brilliance; the carpets of luxurious tea bushes that cloak the hills amongst tall dark conifers, some of East Africa’s finest scenery. As I was leaving Agneta she insisted, as is often the way, that she should give me her ‘contacts’, and wrote her phone number on a scrap of paper. “Call me when you are in Kericho!” she suggested, the mobile phone here being virtually a body part now. In fact, I did send her a text message thanking her for her reviving tea and the short cut. Thus did I comply with Kenyan social etiquette.
The hotel staff are all charming too: Ruto, the receptionist; Patrick, the cook, congenial, polite young men amused to have a mzungu guest. My piki-piki is right in the heart of the building and my room on the second floor at the back. The only drawback to my peace is a bloody speed hump, the Kenyan obsession, over which the many lorries that ply this rather busy road rattle and bounce. Oh well, ear plugs again!