Mama Africa

by vpundir | July 13th, 2008

July is the peak season for flying to East Africa, and the ticket fares are quite steep. Thanks to the efforts of an enterprising travel agent, I am able to find a KLM fare that is about half of the best I can find online, and at least 50% less than that offered by the 10 or so travel agents I have spoken with. This guys has bagged himself a loyal customer.

The cheap ticket naturally means that it is not a direct flight; in fact, I have 2 stopovers before Nairobi. I’ll be flying from London to Amsterdam (AMS), from Amsterdam to Dubai (DXB), and from Dubai to Nairobi (NBO). Then I’d board a shuttle bus to Moshi. There are are flights available from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) aboard Precision Air, which is a partner of Kenya Airways which in turn is a partner of KLM, but the fares are relatively expensive.

In any case, there are not many airlines that fly to the Kilimanjaro International Airport. I think KLM and Swiss are the only two airlines flying direct from Europe, though I many be wrong. Thus most people fly in to either Nairobi or Dar-es-Salaam (DAR) and catch either a connecting flight to Kilimanjaro or a shuttle bus to Moshi.

So, anyhow, I’ll be flying to Nairobi with 2 stopovers and taking a bus to Moshi. On the return journey, thankfully, I have only one stopover in Amsterdam.

Using my trusted Picadilly tube line, I reach Heathrow terminal 4 with enough time on hand for my 9.55 am flight to Amsterdam.

At the check-in counter, the lady tells me that she is unable to print my Dubai-Nairobi boarding pass for some reason. But I don’t have to worry about the bag, as she has checked it all the way to Nairobi. Great!

The security queue is very long, and I don’t like waiting in queues. Thankfully, I know how to bypass that roadblock.

If you want to get through the security queue quickly at the Heathrow airport, here’s a technique that works like a charm, every single time: Have a disheveled appearance – unkempt hair, a few days’ stubble and wrinkled tshirt. Oh, and brown skin.

“Sir, you’ve been randomly selected for additional screening. Will you please step this way? After going through the check, I’ll put you right through the head of the queue.”

“Right, random!” I smile. Every single time.

The flight from London to Amsterdam is even shorter than I expected. And the queue at the gate for the Dubai flight is longer than I expected. Interestingly enough, the security check in Amsterdam is at the flight gates, which seems an unjustified nuisance if you are connecting here.

The flight to Dubai is uneventful. The in-flight service is great, and I like the Red Issue of the KLM in-flight magazine.

I also check out the pilots of a few of the much talked-about TV programs available in the on-demand entertainment system.

The two episodes of Everybody Hates Chris are great. I love this show! It’s genuinely funny.

While 30 Rock has broken some popularity records, the first two episodes fail to make a fan out of me. It’s alright, but it’s neither as funny as Everybody Hates Chris, nor as fun as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Back to You is a tired comedy, though I still like Patricia Heaton.

I also catch 21 and Vantage Point.

The Dubai airport is interesting. There are date trees in the airport, as well as UFO-shaped “chandeliers”. There are false façades and paintings of old Arabic palace entrances, and many, many well-known and not so well-known American food-chain outlets. And one can’t help but mention the electric lights dressed up to look like wall-mounted torches.

The structure of the airport is such that to get to the atrium, one has to go through the security gates, which is an annoyance, especially if one might need to go back and forth between the ground and the first floors a few times.

Whatever the designers or critics may say about Dubai airport’s “juxtaposition of the new against the old” or some such, in my opinion this is the most ridiculous airport I have seen.

To make matters worse, the airport is manned mostly by desis (Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians), and some Chinese. This probably explains the babudom manner in which it is run.

Anyhow, my flight is at 3.10 am, so I should get my boarding pass. At the connections window assigned to KLM, the clerk tells me that the next leg is operated by Kenya Airways, and thus I need to collect my ticket from them. At the Kenya Airways window, located about 250m from the KLM one, the clerk tells me that he does not see me in the system, and the flight is full. How’s that possible, I ask him. After all, KLM issued me a confirmed ticket. He checks again using my eticket number, and repeats his earlier answer. If KLM issued the ticket, he tells me, then it’s them that need to figure out what happens. I don’t like the runaround, but for once decide to go back to the KLM window. The clerk checks his system, and yes, I am definitely on the KLM system. So, will he please tell the Kenya guy to issue my boarding pass, I ask him. Yes, he says, I should go and collect my pass from the Kenya window. So I go back there. The clerk still can not find me on the system. I tell him to call up the guy at the KLM window (I always note down the names and numbers of these folks), which he does. The confusion is so great, that the clerk from the KLM window comes down personally to help resolve the issue. When they can’t figure it out, the clerk decides to call Kenya Airways (the clerks are all airport employees). His solution for me is that Kenya has now put me on standby. That’s not good enough, I tell him, especially as he told me just a few minutes ago that the flight is fully booked. I demand to speak with a KLM employee. This is hard at this time of night – the only ones available are at the gates. So I go through the security and to a gate from which a KLM flight is scheduled to leave. There I speak to a KLM employee who makes a couple of calls and resolves the matter. But I’ll be able to get my boarding pass only after midnight, he advises.

Thus, before going back up, I decide to grab a bite at the food court. At the Indian food outlet, I get some rice with Kadahi Paneer, which tastes like Shahi Paneer from the restaurants in Jama Masjid area in Delhi.

Click here to check out my pictures from Dubai airport of 10 Jul 2008.

On the way to Nairobi, I catch Flawless and Shutter, meaning that I don’t sleep a wink through the entire journey.

The plane touches down in Nairobi soon after sunrise. The plane parks at some distance from the gate. Stepping out onto the ramp, I notice that the runways and gates are mostly empty – there’s just a Virgin Atlantic plane parked in some distance, and another Kenya Airways one by it. In fact, the airport is so devoid of traffic that we walk down to the gate through a couple of taxiways; I am sure this would have been an offence in the United States under any traffic conditions.

The immigration desks are labeled to filter the passengers into specific groups, but evidently that’s just an “on paper” exercise. Kenya issues visas on arrival, so it take me a while to get through the queue and past immigration even though I already have a Kenyan visa.

I am picked up at the airport by an employee of my guide company. Since the shuttles to Moshi leave early in the morning, I’ll have to spend the day in Nairobi. I am pretty tired, so I think some sleep would do me good.

My host tells me that a father-son duo, also from London, has also arrived in Nairobi. They’ll be taking the coach to Moshi tomorrow with me, and today our host is taking them to the Nairobi National Park. Hmm…Giraffes and Zebras, eh? Well, forget sleep then. Let’s pick those two up from their hotel and get on with it.

The traffic in Nairobi is pretty crazy, and the driving insane – not unlike that in New Delhi. In fact, it is so bad that on many of the pavements, rocks have been strewn so that the vehicles wouldn’t drive on them.

Most cars around are Isuzu and Toyota, but it is not unusual to see a Maruti. Similarly, while most trucks are either Isuzu or Mercedes, there are several made by Tata as well.

My host tells me that the largest hotel chain is owned by an Indian family.

I also see several signs in Chinese – an indication of the growing Chinese influence in Africa.

Surprisingly, I don’t see any Indian or Chinese people in the streets. Quite puzzling, really!

After going through some back-alleys to avoid rush-hour traffic, we reach a stretch marked with the sign, “Welcome to the safest road in Nairobi”. As we enter it through the traffic calming measure, I notice the Embassy of Israel on my right. That makes sense.

The hotel of my English groupies is located close to the embassy. We pick them up, and off we go to the Nairobi National Park, which, apparently is the only National Park in the world, located inside a country’s capital.

The English pair is quite jolly and good-natured. The father is a physics professor at a university. He was born in Bistriţa, but moved to Vienna when he was very young. And then he moved to England at the age of 12.

The daughter is an in-training architect with a free-spirit. It is she who convinced her father to accompany her on the trip.

We enjoy the national park, and have lunch at The Ranger restaurant. On the way back, we check out The Carnivore.

They ask me if I am using Malarone; they are evidently very concerned about Malaria. “No”, I tell them, “but I did buy a mosquito-repellent spray from Superdrug.”

The professor starts into a discourse on how dangerous the malaria virus is.

“Well, first of all plasmodium is a protozoan, not a virus,” I don’t even know why I do this, “and secondly, I think the ‘cure’ might do more harm than good, considering the probability of contracting malaria.”

Thankfully, the discussion turns to more pleasant topics, and we don’t end the day on a sour note.

Click here to check out my pictures from Nairobi of 11 Jul 2008.

In the morning we are picked up from the hotel. On the way to the shuttle-station, the guy issues me a return ticket.

“So how much do I owe you?”

“$50,” he tells me.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

He tries to tell me that $25 each way is actually a discounted price. That is sort of true since The Riverside Shuttle advertises its rates online as $40 each way. But I know that this is a rip-off. The “coach” is essentially a battered 24-seater minibus with worn-out seats and cracked windscreen. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind riding in a battered bus at all; what I do mind is paying that much for it.

Bobby Shuttle is another ripoff, but even they are cheaper ($20 each way) than Riverside. What’s more, they have video available in the coaches to provide some entertainment.

In my experience, the best company to use is Scandinavia Express. For $13-15 each way, you can travel in a coach that is airconditioned and has a WC built in.

If you are travelling with a group, another economical option is to hire a vehicle from Regional Luxury Shuttle, who charge about $80-100 for 8 passengers.

Anyhow, there is not much I can do at this point in time, and so I hand him Kenyan Shillings worth about $43, which is all I have. He can take it or leave it; I’m sure if he refuses, I can easily find another coach company that will be happy to take me to Moshi at a lower price.

On the way to Moshi, I am amazed to see a heavy transport truck with the American flag and Barak Obama‘s portrait painted on it.

I also see a tank truck, driven by native African man accompanied by another African man for helper, with a large Sikh Khanda painted on it. This is especially interesting because a majority of transport trucks in India are driven by Sikhs.

We have to take a detour onto a dirt road for a long stretch as the highway is under construction. This seems to be a massive project, and will probably make the journey between Nairobi and Moshi smoother and faster. But till it’s completed, enjoy the huge clouds of dust generated by the passing vehicles.

The sides of the road are lined with acacia trees. Many of them house entire colonies of weaver birds. I don’t see any birds around at the moment, but the trees are laden with nests. While many are just single or double bedroom apartments, there are quite a few huge mansions with several bedrooms. It reminds me of the infamous Chambal Valley basin in Madhya Pradesh.

Every now and then we pass Masaai shepherds, not a minority of whom are children younger than 10 years.

We cross the border at Namanga. Like Kenya, Tanzania also grants visas at the border. I already have a Tanzanian visa, so the processing is somewhat faster.

The “no man’s land” is that just in name, for it is populated by numerous folks vending everything from handicrafts to water to even currency. The way the hawkers hound you reminds you of the Istanbul station in Murder on the Orient Express.

Funnily, you experience the wit of the Tanzanian people as soon as you cross over into the country; right next to the border gate is the “First and Last Hotel”.

We change coaches in Arusha. Apparently, a substantial number of people travel to Arusha from Nairobi and therefore the number of buses needed to transport the passengers from Arusha to Moshi is significantly smaller than those that depart from Nairobi with people whose final destination could be either Arusha or Moshi. This is all fine and good, but I can’t for the life of me understand why they can’t just sort the people onto different buses in Nairobi itself, and save the trouble of changing buses in Arusha. Anyhow, that’s how the system works, and that’s that.

All the signs on the way are in Kiswahili, which originated in these parts. I had never paid any attention to the language, but the signs set me thinking. It is incredible that the language is written in the Roman Script – it is as if it is transcribed in English. I can not believe that this is the native script of the language, and there can be only two explanations for what I see – the horrific explanation and the unlikely explanation. The unlikely explanation is that the language was passed on from generation to generation in oral form, and there were no written records till the English colonized East Africa. The other explanation is that the colonizers destroyed the records of the civilization, and forced the adoption of the Roman script either directly or indirectly.

Today’s Kiswahili borrows liberally from Arabic, English and even Hindi/ Gujarati. For instance, they use the Arabic word Wazir to refer to ministers. Similarly, money or currency is referred to as pesa, which is how Gujaratis would refer to it. For a casual observer like me it is hard to determine whether these inclusions are based on common ancient phylogenetics or a result of modern influences.

As we get closer to Moshi, I am quite taken by how dramatically the terrain has changed. We have come from the barren red land of Kenya to the darker shrubbery to the lush green forestry on dark soil and finally to large fields of sunflower and maize in just a few hours.

The hotel is just outside town – I’m told about a half hour walk away. It looks like a nice place, with beautiful vegetation and cheerful, helpful people. When we arrive, it is quite busy. In fact, it won’t be wrong to say that it is teeming with activity; it’s probably as crowded as any hotel in Zanzibar.

The food at the in-house restaurant doesn’t seem great, but apparently they plan to have a barbecue tonight. My companions think it’s a great idea, but because I am vegetarian and because I am very hungry, I’m not so sure. We decide to check into our rooms and to meet up later to decide.

After keeping my stuff in the room, I return to the reception to ask if there is an Internet facility. There is one, I am told. In fact, literally there is one. There is one computer connected to the Internet, and the hotel charges $1 per 10 minutes for its use. Oh, and it’s currently being used. Based on the feedback of a couple of residents, it is mighty slow as well. Hmm…

As I am departing from the reception, a waiter comes over and tells me that the gentlemen over at table 3 would like to see me.

The wiry man is an Irish-born energy-sector professional currently living in Jakarta. Sitting next to him is his teenaged son, who is on his way to college in Texas. They have just returned from their successful summit attempt.

They are accompanied a big guy from Northern Ireland who, apparently, will be a part of my group for the climb. He attempted the mountain last year via the easier Marangu route, but developed extreme altitude sickness and had to turn back.

The teen is giddy over his achievement, and is full of good advice.

“Be prepared for throbbing headaches,” he says, “and do not feel bad if you have to throw up.”

Apparently, both his father and he threw up at the Stella Point.

“He was trying to race a group of Australians to the top,” says the boy.

“Well, couldn’t let the son beat me,” the father says, “besides, how is it any different from any Saturday night.”

Oh, the Irish! Always full of good cheer.

How about going out for dinner, someone suggests. That seems a great idea to everyone, since nothing at the hotel appears to be too appetizing.

We wait for my other two companion for a while, and then look for them, but in vain. So ultimately, the four of us take a cab to Indo Italiano Restaurant in Moshi town.

The place is jam-packed. But we get lucky and get seated within 5 minutes. That, however, is just the beginning. It takes forever (we didn’t keep count, but somewhere between 70 and 90 minutes) for the food to arrive. But I have to say that the food is worth the wait. It is among the best, if not the best, Indian fare that I have tasted outside of India.

Also, while most places in town offer exchange rate of 1000 Tanzanian shillings to a dollar, Indo Italiano has honest rates for the day hung in plain sight (today it is 1160 shillings).

Apparently, Indo Italiano and The Sikh Union Club are the only two restaurants mentioned in the Moshi tourist brochure. And they are sister concerns, with common ownership.

Even otherwise, all major restaurants in town serve Indian cuisine. Oh, and The Coffee Shop is the favorite haunt for lunch.

Speaking of food, the teen tells me, on the mountain one can easily get bored of the same stale bread and oily eggs every day.

There is an Internet cafe across the street from the restaurant. It has several computers, acceptable speed, and a more reasonable rate at $1 per hour. Maybe should come here and use the Internet tomorrow.

Later in the night I watch a pirated copy of A Mighty Heart that I downloaded from the web and saved on my computer several months ago. While the movie has been widely panned, I like it. It’s not very suspenseful, or dramatic, or thrilling, but I guess I like it in the same way that I like some documentaries that tell an interesting story.

I am woken up by the unremitting barking of dogs. They are barking as if alarmed by intruders. But it turns out that they are just plain annoyed by some drunk Americans who seem to get their kicks by teasing leashed dogs.

A rooster begins to crow almost two hours before sunrise, and keeps on crowing for several hours. I am a vegetarian and animal lover, but I’m sure that if it doesn’t mend it’s ways, it might end up as some tourist’s dinner someday.

Most of the morning is spent in introduction to the guides and a generic briefing. During this I am told about the importance of hiking poles and headtorch, which I rent at a steep price of $10 each. Additionally, I rent a sleeping bag at the same price.

For lunch, my climbing group (the two Englishfolk and the Irish gentleman) decide to walk down to the highly recommended Coffee Shop in town. Since it’s Sunday, however, the Coffee Shop is closed. Thus we end up at the Deli next door. This restaurant offers Indian, Indian Chinese and Japanese cuisines. The service is way better than Indo Italiano and the food is almost as good.

After lunch, while my companions decide to take a cab back to the hotel, I decide to take a walk around town. Since it’s a Sunday, the market is closed, but street-vendors have set up their make-shift shops on every pavement, and they are hawking their wares: from pirated English and Hindi movies to sunglasses and clothes to home-remedies.

The town is choc-a-bloc with craft shops and curios. Additionally, almost anyone walking down the street could be carrying a bunch of paintings, under their arm, that they’d like to sell to you.

I am surprised to see a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurudwara in town, in addition to a mosque and a couple of churches. I have also seen several establishments with Indian-sounding names, but haven’t seen any Indian people around so far. Anyhow, it’s getting dark, and it’s time to get back to the hotel.

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