Travel Stories

Summerland

         We are leaving the tent camp with two men hitching a ride with us into Narok where we will again have lunch at the Dreaming Garden Restaurant and where I will wait to switch to another van to go off with its passengers to Lake Nakuru, while Damian and Natalia (the Argentinians) will continue on to Nairobi.  Two other men will also ride with us to the point in the road where their cattle transport truck got stuck in the mud and where they have contracted to meet a local tractor owner who will try to pull them out.   
         As we are waiting to leave camp I’m in the passenger seat of the van with the door still open.  Maasai men in traditional garb with thick bracelets around their wrists are milling about the van, gabbing with the drivers, checking out the vehicle, passing time, saying goodbye.  I point to the watch on the wrist of one of the Maasai men shaking hands with me.  The watch has a very unusual and attractive face, and I say casually and totally unconsciously to the Maasai, pointing to his wrist, “Nice watch.”  I've got to learn to stop doing this one of these days, pointing at things and saying I like them, because in a flash the Maasai has his watch off and is attaching it to my wrist.  So I take my watch off, one of probably comparable value, a Casio or Timex, and hand it to him.  He likes my watch.  It has a much nicer Velcro band than his watchband that is plastic and cracking.  Another Maasai comes over to the van; he takes off his watch and places it on my other wrist.  He takes my watch from the first man.  He examines it.  I give his watch to the second man.  A third Maasai comes over, not to be denied a part in the action of trade, and soon watches are being examined and moving from hand to hand.  I end up with all three watches while they admire mine.  I give back two of the watches and keep the one I first admired.  The owner of that watch takes my watch.  We each put our new watches on.  The van driver arrives, says “Twende,” (we go).  All of the Maasai men and I shake hands.  I really like my new wristwatch - ascribe it with what I think are Maasai meanings, with the pleasures of time and travel, of possessions and value, of good faith and non-attachment.  It acquires significances not associated with my former watch now adorning the wrist of a Maasai man hundreds of miles away.  I feel myself to be an inordinately happy trader.  
         As opposed to my new driver, the loud and sometimes impatient and annoyed Titus, who is definitely not happy with his current six passengers, four of whom are young Japanese backpackers - a couple who have been on the road nineteen months straight - and a single man and woman.  The other two passengers are somewhat dour (shy?) young women from Norway who the driver tells me never say yes to anything he asks or suggests and will probably not tip him well, if at all.  I nickname them the “No Way” girls and commit myself to getting a yes out of them by offering cookies I’ve bought, or to buy them sodas.  I even ask if I can help them out of the van, or carry something for them.  By the end of the day I am batting zero in my effort to get them to yes.
         Titus is just not my favorite guy, notwithstanding many things I like about him, but he is opinionated, impatient, and believes things that I don’t – for example that Obama hates Kenya, that Tanzanians are lazy, that I should help support his kids, two of whom are in private school.  As we  say, nothing ventured nothing gained.   When we arrive at our guesthouse - where we are the only guests I see - on the far side of Nakuru, a bustling town about one hundred miles northwest of Nairobi on the main Mombasa/Nairobi road that goes all the way to the Somali and Ugandan borders and is filled with big trucks making their runs, Titus takes me aside and asks if I trust him.
         “Sure,” I say hesitantly.
         “Would you like to stay at a better guesthouse, the one I stay at?” he asks.  “No extra cost.  Nicer rooms.  Better showers.  We’ll have a drink and dinner together.”
         “Sure,” I say less than wholeheartedly.
         So we drive to a part of town that I wouldn’t say is seedy, but is definitely seedy.  On the way we pass what I believe will forever be my favorite store name in all of Africa, the  “Pentagon Butchery” shop.  The main gate to the guesthouse/motel-like structure we will be staying at is opened by one of the twenty four hour security men on duty.  We are again the only guests I can see parked inside a gravel courtyard, surrounded on all four sides by the motel-like structure.  My room is meager but fine.  I do yoga, have a shower, play with the functions on my new watch, do not use the hair pick left so considerately hanging next to the room mirror. 
         Titus - whose nickname is Tito - comes to call on me for dinner around seven.  We pass through a small locked gate opened by a security guard on the other side of the courtyard that I hadn’t noticed before, pass through an open air restaurant behind its big parking lot set right on the street and with a few customers sprinkled about, pass goat carcasses hanging in the open kitchen, pass some other more private dining rooms, and end up seated at a table of what turns out to be the large Summerland Hotel complex, complete with a pool hall on one side of where our table is situated and a darkened empty bar with a big dance floor on the other.  Some men are playing pool, but no one else is dining and no one is in the dancehall.  Titus has preordered our dinner, a big single plate of stewed chicken in a light tomato sauce, what he says is steamed spinach, which I tell him is kale (which it is), and he insists is spinach, and roasted whole potatoes that are just fabulous.  There are no utensils on the table.  A waitress comes over with a plastic pitcher of quite hot water and a basin.  She pours hot water over our hands, which we wash.  The meal is shared and eaten with our fingers.  Titus tells me he always sits at this table so he can see who's coming from all sides. 
         “Chance favors the prepared,” I say.
         “If something is biting you it’s inside your clothing,” he says.
         Titus calls his wife in Nairobi.  He puts me on the phone with her.  She is delightful.  He puts me on the phone with his oldest daughter, eleven year old Elizabeth.  She too is delightful, wants to be a doctor and loves science.  I encourage her with all my heart to live her dream.  Then I take my leave, and retire for the evening, falling asleep by nine, but up again at midnight, awakened perhaps by the fabulous throbbing music coming from what I think must be the dance floor on the other side of the gate. 
         I so want to go and see what is happening, but this exploration seems beyond even my comfort zone and sense of prudence; that I’m going to walk into a bar somewhere in the middle of Kenya where I’ll be the only white person and watch people dancing.  I don’t think so.  But I do want to go.  I really do.  I want to see Africa.  Isn’t that what I came for?  So I get up and get dressed.  Then I get undressed.  Then I dress, struggling gaily with myself about the potential risks and potential rewards.  I think I must take off and put on my pants three times.  I’m laughing at myself having such a good time not knowing what the hell I’m going to do and enjoying my struggle.  In the end, of course?, my pants are on and the curious cat cannot deny himself from sating his desire to see what might be on the other side of the gate.
         I leave almost all my money in the room, taking just a little cash, my passport, and one credit card, as I head out into the night, cross the courtyard, am admitted through the small locked gate that separates the motel from the rest of the complex, and enter into what is a totally transformed environment, the parking lot filled to overflowing with cars, the tables filled with people, the music loud and pulsing, the dance floor, complete with strobe light, filled with I’d say are sixty or seventy people dancing in delight in an almost night club atmosphere.
         I park myself in a corner of the room, but it is not long before a quite attractive woman in a low cut blouse finds me and asks if I want to dance.  I decline.  She smiles.  She comes near enough to rub her leg against mine.  She is smiling a genuinely lovely smile. 
         “Buy me a drink?” she asks. 
         “I left my money in my room,” I say. 
         “Well let me go to your room and get it with you,” she says.  I say no.

         A man comes over to introduce himself.  He is a guide headed to Maasai Mara tomorrow.  We have a pleasant enough conversation about where I stayed in Mara, who my guide was, what animals I saw.  He tells me again that he is a guide, as if I didn’t get it. 
         “You are about to have a real taste of Africa, my friend,” he says smiling, “Just watch your passport and your money, I don’t want to find you crying in the morning.”
         The dancers are absolutely wonderful.  Mostly men are dancing with men, or dancing by themselves, or seemingly dancing with whoever is next to them.  There are also women dancing, some with women, some with men, some alone.  The movements are subtle, feet often hardly leaving the floor, shoulders and hips so fabulously expressive in such a narrow range.   Some men dance with women whose backs are turned to them, the man’s hands on the  woman’s thighs, pulling her into him as she dances and moves.  Some women caress their breasts as they dance.  Older men are dancing alone.  Big men are dancing.  The strobe light magnifies the movements.  The dancers seem so happy, so lost in delight.
         “Welcome to Summerland,” the woman says to me, “I’m Kendin.  Would you like some company tonight?”
         “Well yes and no,” I say.
         “Tell me three reasons why no,” Kendin says laughing.
         “Well one is that I have a woman at home I really really love,” I say.  “Two is disease.  And three is that I’m just not the kind of guy who goes off with women he meets in bars, women who go off with strangers.”
        “You not fear on me,” she says, and I cannot understand if she is saying fear or fair.  But it doesn’t really matter. 
         “Come, dance,” she says, and I walk onto the dance floor where the music literally doesn’t ever pause or stop, the sound and the Afro pop beat awesome, "chag" I think it is called, the dancers in some state of delight, and before long so am I, other women coming near as we appear for moments to dance together, and no one paying the slightest attention to me as best as I can tell, except for one older slightly drunk man who comes over to bump fists with me and shake my hand as Kendin leaves the dance floor, and I am alone with about sixty other people, in a bar, in Africa, dancing in delight.
         Later Kendin asks again if we can go to my room.
         “We don’t have to do anything,” she says, “Just be friends.  Have together.  Be fear on me.”  And I really believe (naively?) that what Kendin wants most is company, and of course whatever else she can ply out of me, but not to rob me, or directly charge me for her services.  She is all of thirty three years old, beautiful, and alone.  A beautician with a five year old son.  I tell her I am seventy two.  She says, "God must really love you." 
         Even so my answer remains no. 
         The fact is no. 
          Fear or fair is no. 

          And when I say goodnight to Kendin I almost feel badly for her. 
          And when the first rooster calls to me, alone in my room at four in the morning, the music is still playing.