Friday, September 29, 2006

Boing boing

The Maasai are possibly East Africa's most well-known tribe. They're renowned for their warrior fierceness, their cattle currency, and their long thin silhouettes which appear against the setting sun in numerous postcards. Sometimes near a thorn tree, sometimes just with a spear. The young men are also famous for their demonstrations of youth and vigour in the form of jumping very high from a standing position. To do this, quite flexible achilles tendons are required, which is also helpful exercise if you're interested in improving your running style.

This jumping business is often described as a dance, but I can report that some Maasai also boogie, bounce and hip-hop. They may even do the funky chicken, but the night I saw a Maasai man dancing, the music wasn't appropriate. They play mainly reggae in the Come-Back Club, Watamu. In any case, he looked far cooler than the sprinkling of badly aging wazungu on the prowl for younger, more attractive Kenyan *koff* girlfriends and *koffkoff* boyfriends. Since they both share the same fondness for jewellery, and he'd checked his spear at the door, it must be the lack of a slightly-too-small, uncannily black toupee that does it.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


In Nairobi National Park, the speed limit is 20km/h and warthogs and children have right of way. Pets are prohibited by law, and only wild animals are allowed. Wild children raised by warthogs are probably covered. What's amazing is that this enormous wildlife park backs onto the city. So as drivers curse and shake their fists at the zebra that have a tendancy to block roads rather like herds of Welsh sheep (only stripier), tourists who have had their fill of black and white photography can admire the city skyline in the distance and watch small planes flying into Wilson Airport.

At the other end of the park, about 100 km or so away from the city, there aren't any fences. It just sort of stops being nature reserve at the Athi river and starts being something else. Buffet, perhaps. In the middle it's a black rhino sanctuary and is the scene of the summer wildebeest migration. I missed both these things, but did manage to see loads of buffalo (not shuffling so much as snuffling) and a pair of lions having a snooze. So that's two out of my big five.

The male lion spent most of his time hunkered down in the grass pretending to be a furry leaf and graciously ignoring the over-excited tourists and the enormous green lorry of the KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) as it thundered past several times. The female on the other hand was sprawled out in a pose remarkably similar to the one the dog-niece adopts when she flaunts herself illicitly, pr0n-star stylee, on elder bro's fatboy when I do the dog-sitting. So you heard it here first. Dog is merely in touch with her inner lioness, and I am her enabler. Rar.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Toto-lly doomed

They are testing the internal radio system in the office today, and consequently ABBA Gold has been now playing for the last half hour over the announcement system. Despite the fact that I don't actually own this album and haven't listened to it all the way through since my student daze, I know it so well I can actually remember the track order, to say nothing of all the words. It's not right on a Wednesday morning.

Related to this, I realised last night that the noise the boiler at home makes as it switches itself on is identical in rhythm to the opening drum riff of Blondie's "Call Me." Also, when I flew up from Malindi to Nairobi the other day, I looked out to my left and saw Kilimanjaro rising above, er… Tsavo East.

(Favorite bit of that journey: the security screeing at Malindi airport. Two men in a uniform book-ending the most enormous steel beast purporting to be a luggage x-ray machine, but no one actually looking at any images it might produce. Mind you, it could have been emitting rays of doom to neutralise any illicit goods instead. Which would have been cool. It did have that kind of look, and that might have been an explanation for the peculiar grinding sound.)

At least the inevitable looping riff (Sehh-ren-ge-teeee) kept my mind off the pilot's unswerving determination to hit every pocket of air turbulance en route. (Quote from white-knuckled nearby passenger after we landed, "I wish to get out and kiss Kenya's good and Godly earth".)

Clearly, the 80s have left their neon and be-permed mark on my soul. Can a mullet be far away?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Of men in matatus

One of my most iconic memories of previous trips to Kenya has been the sight of overloaded matatus (mini-buses) flinging themselves around potholes at death-defying speeds as yet more passengers attempted to hitch a lift by grabbing hold of the ankles of those clinging desperately to the roof. Maximum speed limits were treated as a target to reach and exceed as quickly as possible. Eye-popping colour schemes vied with ear-deafening music volumes to attract the attention of any orbiting spacecraft. Danger and excitement wrapped up in one teeth-rattling package on four wheels.

But it appears that the matatu's vim and vigour has been muffled of late. From the danger point of view, this is rather a good thing, since matatu accidents have traditionally been fairly horrific. In Nairobi, fleets of nicely painted uniform minibuses in either purple or green now clog the rush-hour traffic. According to a taxi driver I spoke to, it all has something to do with the relative of someone in government who owns a bus-import business. Consequently, the green ones are better than the purple ones. Or was it the other way around?

Down on the coast, matatus have retained their free-spirited approach to music and d├ęcor, as long as it doesn't involve actual people and their relatives doing performance art out of the windows. However, a new new form of transport appears to be filling the gap 'twixt bumper and gearstick. The same three-wheeling star of Public Transport Destiny shines on the coastal towns of Brighton, Malindi and Mombasa: they have all taken the tuk-tuk to their hearts and made it their own.

I have seen at least six and a half (counted limbs and divided by 4) people crowded into one of these motorised rickshaws (what else is a boot for?), but the more usual two (fat) or three (skinny) passengers appears to be the norm. As for me? I'd advocate a sports bra on most routes.

The cheaper, more eco-friendly alternative, the boda-boda remains popular as well. Since proper ladies ride sidesaddle these, a certain degree of genteel fearlessness is necessary when it comes to maintaining dignity on the padded seat. Particularly while flying over speedbumps on a downhill slope. It's all a bit like swans, really. Frantic movement below the surface, while above, a serene smile and unruffled countenance. If I can ever get the hang of toting a bundle on my head while riding as well, I'll be indominatable.

Monday, September 25, 2006

In no particular order

When it came to my choice of holiday destination, I decided to opt for somewhere very, very far away from work, Prague and all things Czech. This is harder than one might think. For one thing, this sort of guideline strikes out most of N.America. In Texas, Czech is apparently the third most widely-spoken language. I kid thee not. If it's in easyjet's in-flight magazine, it must be true.

Since I was mainly hoping to think of little more than fish for about two weeks, the cunning option was Kenya, helped by a couple of handy-dandy off-season deals and the prospect of diving in bath-temperature waters. So it was na shledanou to Praha and jambo, habari to Malindi and Watamu with a big bottle of insect repellent so strong it melted English flip-flops more quickly than the midday sun, and an even bigger bottle of factor 50 sun protection that managed to bond with any sand to form a rock-hard cement within seconds.

All very far away from knedlik, cobbles and the conditional tense, you might think… And yet… And yet… I'm not even speaking of the ubiquity of Bata, the Canadian shoe firm of Czech origin. Even though it's just opened a new branch in down-town Nairobi, just off Haile Selassie Ave. Oh no.

As I sped away from Nairobi airport through the African night, my eyes were inexorably drawn to the placards affixed to every lamp-post along Uhuru Highway (and if that doesn't make you think of Star Trek, you're a better earthling than me). For one thing, advertising in foreign countries is way more fun than the home-grown stuff.

Consequently I bring news that Mada hotels are "always in the right spot," and that "you never know what you might find" at Nakumatt shops (including love in the paper products aisle brought on by puffy red cartoon hearts). In fact, even sponsoring a lightpost is "more than just an advertisement".

And so my brain shifted into low gear, hypnotised by the flash… flash… flash… sequence of signs. Until, to my horror, the hoarding for a new and upcoming Ugandan tyre company hove into view. Later billboards revealed the fact that "Africa rides on [these] tyres". But little could the founder have known that his choice of corporate name would strike fear in the heart of this unwary student of the Czech language.

And so my gales of laughter at a fortnight's escape from dreaded grammar turned to hideous screams of terror that cut through the night like demented hyena juggling chainsaws through granite. For the PR people had chosen that particular overpass to make a bold and uncompromising statement of the company name in red and white block capital letters, eight feet high:


Friday, September 08, 2006

I have seven minutes to write this

So, I haven't run off with a trapeze artist named Dave and his collection of fascinating beer mats. It's just that the dramatic developments in life which have a lot to do with removing the question marks after "Prague" in my profile have also made it extremely busy.

Dramatic developments being what they are, I'm now on holiday, and therefore internet-deprived. But am shortly about to head off and perfect my imitation of a submerged wounded seal (something to do with lack of neutral buoyancy, and mysteriously light ankles - who'd have thought in?) and attrack the attention of any wandering Great Whites. Or something like that.

The good news is that I'm scribbling loads of stuff on old-tech paper, and it may eventually find its way here. If I get a working connection.

Must dash...