Lamu, Suswa, and London

At the start of March I was sent for my first ever trip into “the field”, which in this case was a tiny island called Lamu off the northernmost tip of Kenya’s coast. I was to do a series of interviews with a range of people who would in some way be affected the LAPSSET project, a giant infrastructure investment by the Kenyan government that will connect a new port near the island to a network of roads, railways, and oil pipelines that reach across northern Kenya. I had no idea how to go about doing this, and despite travelling with two other staff from Nairobi, I felt totally reliant on three DRC staff who were based in Lamu itself.

The team leader was Muhammed, stockily built like a weightlifter and with short greying hair. He single-handedly made our trip work, arranging and re-arranging interviews, sorting out logistics, and informing us of all the political and diplomatic information we needed to get people on our side. He worked incredibly hard for us while also attending his own busy schedule of meetings and workshops. He stopped only to answer the call to prayer five times a day, the last of which in the early evening meant his day was done, when his earnest frown would relax into a smile as he wandered off to the mosque.

The near-silent Rachel had a perfectly circular face and hair which, apart from a thin streak of grey emerging on one side, was exactly same colour as her skin, which reflected well her aura of being complete in herself. She smiled almost always but rarely spoke, contributing instead through her easy laugh that showed her teeth and shook her shoulders. I hoped she was somebody’s mother.

Juma had huge long legs and big hands and feet, which made his ability to appear and disappear even more unlikely. He guided us round Lamu like Virgil, popping up with his rucksack hitched high on his shoulders like a schoolboy to point us to the right office or hotel lobby before vanishing again. At the end of our interviews as we stepped squinting back into the white sun he would invariably be waiting for us, listening to Tanzanian pop music on his telephone headset and swatting the mouthpiece away as he picked the next track.

Being a coastal town, Lamu is Islamic in heritage, having been a trading post for ships that used to come down from the Middle East. We stayed in a lovely house built by the Omanis a few hundred years ago, full of wide open spaces and low-slung sofas around the edges. Lamu is built from coral rock and mangrove timber, giving the buildings a beautiful granulated texture.

Lamu’s main mode of transport was donkey. They were all over the place, tethered to drainpipes, wandering free, being ridden by youths who’d devised halters from bits of rope. As pleasing as this was at first, the novelty soon wore off. There were piles of droppings everywhere and any street not on the seafront reeked of piss.

It was 30ᴼ by the time we finished breakfast at 8am, and so humid that even in the shade I sweated throughout the day until the sun went down at around 7pm. On top of this were the flies, which we wafted at like absent-minded orchestra conductors as they settled constantly on our arms, our faces, our drinks, our notebooks, and our food. Fishermen carried the fruits of their day’s labour through the streets, in pungent baskets full of red and blue catch, or on strings with tiny sharklets, aghast fish, or stringy octopi hanging off them. One evening a young man struggled past me with a barracuda fully five feet long in his left hand, his right held horizontally away from his body as he tried to avoid dragging the fish in the dirt. Another guy tried to sell me a live lobster, its eyes swivelling blankly.

Our interviews went well and we were lucky to be able to meet a wide range of people, from the newly installed County Commissioner to representatives of hunter-gatherer groups from remote areas of the mainland. The seafood was fresh and delicious, and I loved the specialty fruit juices that bartenders would blend from baskets of fruit on the counter. Even half full of crushed ice, the drinks were warm by the time I finished them. There was very little alcohol: Lamu is a traditional Muslim town. The women mostly were fully covered in long black dresses and brilliant headscarves that flowed around their shoulders. My favourites were the honey yellow and the turquoise, but despite them being very beautiful I avoided taking photos.

Back in the refreshing, dry 28ᴼ of Nairobi, I woke at 5 the morning after getting home to go hiking on Mount Suswa, a crater around two hours’ drive from Nairobi. With a small group of young Kenyans I climbed through inclining scrub for two or three hours before hitting the edge of the crater itself, from where it was another two hours upwards to the peak. The crater was thickly covered in little trees that rustled together in wind and sounded like the ocean, and underneath them sprouted a layer of lemongrass that made the whole mountain smell fresh and clean. After hitting the peak there was still around 14 kilometres back to the minibus, too far, really, and those among our small group who weren’t used to hiking suffered. I reached the van with shaking legs and feeling slightly nauseous with tiredness after walking so far in the baking sun after a draining week and threw myself down on the grass. The guide, who had walked the whole way without so much as a sip of water, looked at me expressionlessly. “Exercise,” he said, and continued chatting to the driver.

After that it was back to work, and a final few weeks that bounced from fraught to empty, as is the nature of collaborative work. I find myself frustrated that so many things are outside my control, which is definitely a good learning experience, but also satisfied to be working on something intellectually stimulating and (hopefully) that will be in some small way influential in helping Kenya’s rich and powerful make sensitive business decisions.

As I enter my last few days I find myself listing what I will miss and what I won’t. The weather is an obvious one and not worth dwelling on. I look forward to supermarkets where I’ll be able to predict what’s on the shelves and that don’t get flooded whenever the freezers get hit by a power cut. I’ll miss being able to buy freshly grilled corncob for 20p from any busy street. I won’t miss the power cuts, the mosquitoes, or being metal-detected every time I enter a public building. (Public security measures have been in in Nairobi ever since the Westgate attack, although they’re so cursory they’re more annoying than reassuring.)

I’ll miss being able to jump on the back of a motorbike and zoom to any part of the city for a couple of pounds, but not when the driver assures me he knows exactly where my destination is, doesn’t, and then gets annoyed at me for not giving accurate directions on the fly. I won’t miss the traffic, taking my life into my hands whenever I cross Waiyaki Way, or being a pedestrian in general. Nairobians as a public (but not in person) are somewhat inconsiderate and pushy, as I suppose the citizens of any overcrowded city are. I’ve often been unable to cross a road because a driver won’t stop accelerating, never mind slow down, or had to jump a ditch or go onto the road while running because the people walking towards me on the pavement won’t so much as rotate their shoulders to create a space.

I’ll miss my mental inventory of football shirts, which I realise I’ve been half-consciously building ever since arriving. Manchester United and Arsenal are comfortably out in front, followed by Chelsea, with Manchester City, Liverpool, and Spurs lagging some way behind. From Italy the usual suspects of Juventus and AC Milan dominated, with an honourable mention to Roma, while from Spain Real Madrid, interestingly, far outstripped Barcelona. Bayern did extremely well overall, and Dortmund, appropriately, punched above their weight. The Old Firm was won 1-0 by Rangers. The real pleasure was in these one-offs, which included Ipswich Town, Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Valencia, FC Köln, and even, poor fellow, Aston Villa.

I’ll miss my flatmates, my balcony, and being able to afford a pleasant living space with a big kitchen. I won’t miss working from home, which often led to days of feeling isolated and cut off from the outside world. I look forward to seeing my friends, most of whom I haven’t seen since July, and of course my family, including my newly arrived nephew who I will soon meet for the first time. And mostly I look forward to seeing Katy, whose graciousness and warmth from afar has helped me both to bear the low moments and enjoy the many privileges of living here.

I fly back to London this weekend, hoping to find a job quickly. Thanks for reading – I hope to see you soon.


Nairobi, still

A combination of persistence and luck a few days after my previous entry allowed me to stay in Nairobi. One of the many NGOs I had approached needed a researcher to start work immediately on a project that they had fallen behind on, and, happily for both of us, I was qualified and able to start immediately. I spent the remainder of December and January mapping large-scale infrastructure projects across East Africa, including pipelines, power stations, and railways, and looking into how they might affect security in the areas they’re being built in.


At the start of February I handed over the research to a team of consultants based in Canada, and am now writing up the results of some studies into local stakeholder engagement. Infrastructure projects tend to bring in a lot of opportunities for local communities, but also risks, and my NGO has spent several months studying how construction companies can work with local people to make sure projects are mutually beneficial. I have to read technical reports into things like the difference between one and three radio broadcasts a week in illiterate communities, but I also get the satisfaction of contributing to a project that might help prevent a farmer’s house being bulldozed or a construction worker being shot at.

It’s fantastic work experience. I feel extremely lucky to be gaining a breadth of experience, in-country, for a well respected international NGO.

And, of course, I get to live in Nairobi. On being offered my contract I used Airbnb for the first time and found a flat just outside the city centre. Flatsharing is not really established in East Africa as part of the yuppie culture, but is beginning to catch on and I had a choice of ten or so once I’d put in my search parameters. I’ve again been lucky to find a very comfortable flat with three friendly flatmates, two Americans and a Kenyan. A far cry from my warehouse attic in Limehouse, I now have cable TV, an en-suite bathroom, and a balcony, from where I can have a coffee and watch birds, butterflies, and even once a lost-looking monkey in the trees outside.

I work from home and visit the office occasionally for a meeting. I’m glad I don’t have to commute. Nairobi’s roads were built in the 1970s for an urban population of 800,000. The city now holds around 4 million people, and (somehow) the growth rate of vehicle registrations is even higher than the growth rate of population. Traffic is a major feature of life and one that must cost the city thousands of hours of productivity every day.

At rush hour, queues for minibuses called matatus stretch whole blocks, hundreds of people at a time shuffling down the road for their turn to get into a 14-seater vehicle. For many Nairobians the charge of around 20p a journey makes a matatu the only affordable way of getting around. If you’re rich, you can spend eight to 10 times the price and get on a motorbike taxi, a boda-boda, and if you’re rich and prudent you can pay 10 to 15 times the price for a taxi or an Uber.

However you travel, being on the roads is somewhat anarchic, the stultifying traffic both a cause and effect of lawless driving. Boda-bodas in particular do whatever it takes to keep moving, overtaking around corners, driving on the wrong side of the road, and if things are really bad, simply mounting the pavements and forcing pedestrians out of their way. As someone who walks as a matter of preference, this irritates me. I once gestured pointedly at the road as a motorbike honked past me on a pavement, and the driver frowned at me confusedly. In my mind, there is a rule, written or not, that as a walker I have at very least priority of use of the sidewalk. Here, that assumption does not hold.

In autumn 2015 I was commuting to and from an internship in Oxfordshire. The last leg of my journey was on a bus from the centre of Oxford to my parents’ house. The little bus shelter was far too small to cover all those waiting, and I was endlessly fascinated to see every evening, even in the rain, the commuters form an immaculate queue down the street away from the shelter. No-one had to communicate to form this queue and, as far as I know, there is no law requiring it. There is no need; rules and regulations, and the benefits of obeying them, are part of the psychological profile of Britain. When I was younger, this used to either grate or amuse me, and I loved my time in countries where following rules was much less part of the collective mental landscape. Now, whether it’s the effect of several consecutive years in the UK or just that I’m more conservative as a venerable 25-year-old, I find the inefficiencies and disorganisation of the developing world annoying more than affirming.

I don’t want to become one of those people who chooses to live in a less developed country and then complains thoroughly about the poor customer service, the traffic, the politics, the corruption, and the expense of imported luxury food items. Nor, however, do I want to settle for appalling traffic and dangerous road use because really what can you expect from Africans.

Apart from the traffic, Nairobi is a fun place to live with all the opportunities and attractions of any major city. I’ve started taking French classes three evenings a week at the Alliance Francaise. I’m enjoying them in spite and not because of my teacher, a Monsieur Shadrach, who with his shaved head and neat goatee looks uncannily like a black Walter White. Every evening he arrives five minutes late and performs a showcase of laziness and dis-incentivization with a consistency that deserves some sort of documentary recognition.

Shadrach’s classes consist of working through exercises in a textbook, and his sole pedagogic technique is the question-to-the-group. I’ve had about five minutes of teacher training in my life and even I know that just throwing a question to a group is poor practice. We don’t reply because we don’t know the answer, because the answer is too obvious, because we know the answer but not the French vocabulary, because it’s awkward when more than one person begins answering at once, because people are unconfident, because we’re not sure if the question is rhetorical, because every answer apart from the one M. Shadrach is thinking of is incorrect, or for any other reason that dangling a question in front of a group of people who speak very little of a language is a bad idea.

Shadrach, however, is a firm believer that if a question is met with silence, it needs asking again, louder, higher pitched, more insistently. If that doesn’t work, he coos “cla-ass? Cla-ass?” and asks a third time, at which point, to give him his due, we’re in such despair that someone usually offers a reply to make him stop repeating himself. As if that wasn’t enough, he also has a habit of chirping at the end of every instruction, explanation, or question, “ca va? Ca va?”, a habit that I’m somehow unable to zone out and find incredibly irritating.

In another example of my inability to tolerate situations not to my liking, I’m changing classes next week.

My contract finishes on the last day of March; although I’m just beginning to feel like I know the city, I’m already a dozen applications in to the next round of job-hunting. Having got this current role on my CV, I’m feeling much more positive than last time. While I’m waiting to find out what the next step is, I’m lucky to have interesting work to be getting on with and good weather to enjoy. It was a gamble to come to East Africa, and I’m very happy that things turned out so well.


Kenya. A country I feel familiar with, and instantly more at home in than Ethiopia. The people are friendly – some a little too friendly, such as the bus conductor who held my hand for nearly a whole block to encourage me onto his vehicle, and a likely gentleman who greeted me with a slap of a handshake before informing me I was going to pay for his ride home – but in general I feel welcome as a foreigner, and I enjoy being greeted hi by people I walk past in the street.

The bougainvillea is disappearing day by day but still provides wonderful splashes of colour throughout the city. I smugly told Katy on arrival that I never get sunburned and promptly got burned on my first day, feeling weak and prickly by nightfall. Since then the weather has mostly been overcast, but still warm enough that my standards have completely readjusted. I went for a walk today in 20ᴼ heat and took a coat in case I was cold.

Nairobi is a more developed city than Addis (although maybe not for long), and comparing the two brings home to me the staggering functionality of Western cities. The work required to make sure that on thousands of streets no traffic light switches off, no pavement crumbles into mud, no road loses its surface, is enormous, overwhelming to imagine.

And Nairobi is a big and ever-growing city. Smart, expensive malls seem to be on every junction, and even in residential areas the streets are full of pedestrians. There are more white people wandering around than I remember, although taxi drivers and market stall owners tell me that tourism has dipped since Westgate and Garissa. The Pope’s face is up on billboards in the centre and people are proud of his visit, their enthusiasm undimmed by the huge crowds he drew, the road closures, or that it rained for the duration of his two days in town. The smell of petrol pulses on the streets. Buses are covered every inch in artwork, announcing devotion to Manchester United, Spiderman, Rihanna, or Jesus.


Public transport works well, in the sense that if I need to go somewhere, there will be a bus that takes me there. The problem is knowing which one to take. The system is completely arcane, the majority of buses without any visible number or route information, instead interpreted by conductors who are more interested in your thirty shillings than your precise destination.

What seems opaque to me is easily managed by local people, of course, so I’m sure working out bus routes is just a matter of familiarity. What I think would take me longer to get used to is the traffic. The traffic in central Nairobi has transcended an urban planning issue to achieve a sort of elemental status, the citizens rendered insensitive to it through its sheer scope. On Monday I had a meeting in a building that would, on empty roads, take perhaps 25 minutes to reach from my flat. It took me two and a quarter hours each way. The queues have to be seen to be believed, and at any time a given road is as likely to be in complete gridlock as not.

Having the meeting felt like a victory. Simply getting through to an NGO feels like a small success, and a face-to-face conversation rather than a phone call or a reply to an email even more so. Prospecting for work is a strange activity and my mood surfs up and down depending on how I feel the search is going. Zora Neale Hurston argued during the Harlem Renaissance that hierarchies are not simply technical; that it’s possible to attain the trappings of a certain class but still be excluded from it if you’re not the right type of person. In my own case I’m talking not about huge social injustice but the finer points of privilege, yet in a tiny way I’m encountering the same truth about the NGO sector. I have my qualification, but I’m still not part of the club. Whether I find work here or not, I’m angry that at 25 and with two excellent degrees I’m still reliant on someone doing me a favour to get even the most lowly of job opportunities.

If nothing changes, I will be home in a week, and will never know if I was attempting something impossible or whether one more phone call or email would have been my lucky break. After so much exertion of making contact with people and attempting to sell myself, there is a curious feeling of things being out of my hands, and my efforts being unrelated to whether there is a prize or not. Or to put it another way, if someone does employ me, it will be through no different approach on my part than to all the people who didn’t employ me.

That is getting a little ahead of myself. There are several days to go during which anything might happen. And, I have to remind myself, if it doesn’t, there are worse things than flying home and looking for work again in my own culture and in the same country as my friends and family. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to knowing what I’m doing.

Addis Ababa

Tolerance of slow progress is not one of my strengths. After a whole three weeks of unemployment, I decided that applying for jobs was a fool’s game and it would be sensible to fly to Ethiopia to look for work there. I had the offer of accommodation from a family friend, and knew that the country was full of NGOs doing things I believed they could use my help with. So I booked a ticket and a week later, having failed to say goodbye to or even notify a number of people in UK who deserve better, I landed in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

I gave myself a few days to acclimatise. Apart from seeking work experience, it had also been well over a year since I last had a holiday. And I had a lot to learn about Ethiopia, which locals say as It-yo-pya, and about Addis Ababa in particular.

Addis is a city under construction. A brand new tram network arcs over the city propped up on huge concrete towers, and deep concrete underpasses keep traffic churning along on two- and three-lane carriageways. Everywhere there are new concrete tower blocks going up, chunky grey skyscrapers covered with spindly exoskeletons of wooden scaffolding. Red Sinotrucks from China dominate the roads, carrying construction material from one site to another. What are all the buildings for? No-one’s sure. Hotels. Offices. Apartments. Someone will buy them, or rent them, or use them as an investment. Who’s paying for it? The Chinese. Ityopyans grumble about Chinese workers, Indian small business owners, Arab investors, Turkish financiers, and the lack of opportunities. Security is excellent. No-one worries about getting robbed. They worry about being seen by traffic police.

In a city of several million, it feels like most people have their own vehicle. There is no road tax, and public transport that people actually use is mostly limited to fleets of blue and white minibuses that are halfway between buses and taxis. All hours are rush hour. Being on the road resembles nothing so much as an ongoing negotiation, the traffic politicking with each other in tiny grunts of their horns. Cars, trucks and minibuses nudge, enquire, take advantage, concede and sigh, their drivers gesticulating with resignation, gratitude or annoyance at the caprices of the herd.

Official districts are named in Amharic, and unofficial ones in Italian. The city centre has a number of memorials to heroes of Ethiopia’s history. The Italian legacy is limited to a thousand and one cafes serving macchiato, as far as I can see. I haven’t heard anyone speak Italian or seen evidence of Italian communities.

My host lives in Bole, pronounced Boll-eh, in a district known as Rwanda because of the nearby embassy, or as Little Mogadishu because of its concentration of Somalis. I recognise it now by the Pepsi-sponsored roundabout at the end of the central road and the never-closed wooden stalls of bright fruit and vegetables, lit by bare lithium light bulbs at night, that line the corner on the way to my street. The house is near the southern edge of the city, just close enough to the airport for me to hear the rumbling whoosh of take offs when it’s quiet at night. It’s also near a mosque, which calls the umma to prayer five times a day with a melodic chant, challenged on weekends by a nearby church. Then the two compete to broadcast their devotion over Bole as loudly as possible, as though God looks favourably upon he who has the biggest microphone.

My vegetarianism lasted a matter of hours. The staple is injera, a large, sour pancake that is simultaneously plate, cutlery and carbohydrate, and fillings of vegetables and meat called wot. You tear pieces off your injera, scoop up sauce inside it, and eat with your fingers. It’s very satisfying to get a watertight package of food in your fingertips, and surprisingly difficult.


On my second day my host family took me to a restaurant serving a local speciality. We walked through an arched entrance to find a courtyard like a pub garden, with something like a box office at the entrance. In the box office was a cashier, with whom we placed an order, and great sides of red raw beef hanging on hooks behind him. A waiter took a cleaver to one of these and sliced off our due amount of meat, which he loaded up onto a silver plate with a stack of injera, a bowl of mustard sauce, and a very sharp knife. With this on our table, we cubed the meat into small portions which we wrapped in injera, dipped in the mustard, and ate.

“What if it makes me sick?” I asked after three or four cubes.

“We have an excellent medicine at home” reassured Lydia.

One of my favourite things is the post-lunch coffee ceremony. Green coffee beans are roasted on top of a small cube of a stove, while nuggets of incense are burned on a brazier, wafting thick clouds of smoke. Once the beans are roasted each guest is invited to breathe in a lungful of the smoke coming off them, like being asked to taste wine before it’s poured. The beans are then ground and made into thick coffee served in small cups, and is brought out in rounds. Two coffees is normal, but you can have three and even, rumour has it, four.

Looking for work, which I got down to after a few days, has not been so enriching. The message is that an unattached foreigner like me is extremely unlikely to gain a work visa, one I’ve heard with such consistency that I wonder how I managed to arrive in the country without knowing this. I’m now spending my time with the NGO people I manage to meet asking about opportunities in other countries, mostly Kenya, where I am going in a week’s time. Some people have been very encouraging and others have been the opposite, and the line between being enterprising and being foolish seems not only blurry but vacillating.

Having left fairly suddenly, I’m very conscious of the distance and time between me and people I can text any time I like, sit in a pub with, or watch the sun go down with on Primrose Hill. While I often feel lucky to be able to simply head to east Africa and see what happens, being so unsure about the future and not having any structure or stability is quite draining. I have a week left to enjoy Ethiopia, and then will start the search again in Kenya.

Return to East Africa

This article was first published by The Student Journals

Mum was practically singing. She had no right to be feeling happy: it was almost one in the morning, we’d been travelling for almost 24 hours and the airline had lost our entire luggage. For my family and me though, being back in Kenya for a two week holiday was more than enough to make up for it. I stood in the grounds of the guesthouse for a moment before bed, absorbing the still-warm tarmac on my bare feet, the raucous cicadas buzzing all around and the quiet smell of the bougainvillea, faintly orange in the dark.

It had been a long time. 13 years, almost, and much of the holiday was spent judging how much had changed in that time. Plenty had. The populations of Kenya and Uganda had rocketed over the last two decades or so, and it showed in Nairobi. If you’d asked me to name infamous traffic spots, I would have said Moscow, Mexico City, Mumbai, but not East Africa. We crawled and baked in the jams, watching billboards proclaiming investment banking and insurance policies, chatting to taxi drivers about politics and football. (“Liverpool,” snorted Kamau. “Most of their fans are ladies in Nakuru.”) I was sad at how completely westernized the development process was: all glossy corporate assurances of a prosperous future.

We spent three days in Nairobi waiting for our lost luggage and getting our hands on a vehicle via an old friend from our residency days. “It’s not a car, it’s a steam engine,” complained Mum as she, Dad and my brother got used to driving the old Land Rover we eventually tracked down. As if the dodgy lights, speedometer that fluttered ceaselessly in a thirty-kph radius and woeful steering weren’t enough to contend with, the ruthless driving practises and pedestrian competition kept things high-octane throughout. Everyone had a car, but the major trunk roads between the biggest cities in the region were still single lane. I saw one working traffic light the whole time, and it was brazenly ignored by everyone.

We stopped in at a giraffe conservation project and an elephant orphanage, both crowded but slightly unreal – almost like watching oneself on television more than taking in how much fun it was. Visiting the giraffe centre was one of my favourite moments of the holiday, as we climbed up to a platform and placed food in the mouth of sauntering, six-meter-tall giants with foot-long tongues that wrapped themselves slimily around our fingers.

Leaving Nairobi, we ventured northwest along the Great Rift Valley towards the lakes: Baringo, Naivasha, Elementaita, Bogoria. Baringo was perhaps the biggest shock, the campsite we’d stayed at years before was almost fully submerged by the lake. My parents reminisced to the owner, Moses, whose courtesy and helpfulness were untroubled by the rising water and falling patronage, even if his business was. We watched crocodiles sunbathing at the bottom of the gardens and went onto the lake in a canoe, where we saw giant fish eagles and tiny kingfishers swooping into the water for lunch.

As we travelled between the various lakes, we made a detour to visit my brother’s old school, where he’d boarded for a year before we moved to the UK. It feels strange being in an empty school under any circumstances, but this venerable English institution in the middle of the Kenyan countryside, with childhood friends still in old pictures on the wall, was important, especially for my brother.

We walked alongside wild giraffe, antelope and wildebeest on Crescent Island, and sneaked up on flamingos that were wading in the warm water of Lake Bogoria. The Land Rover’s engine blasted out a cloud of smoke and we spent a lot of time and money and cortisol on getting it fixed. We drank Tangawizi ginger beer. Every Kenyan we met smiled warmly and talked to us in their beautiful accent, when we could get them to switch away from Swahili with Dad into English.

Halfway through our holiday, we crossed the border into Uganda in a nightmare of traffic queues, persuasive insurance artists and night driving, which is even further from the categorical imperative than day driving. The Ugandan police stopped us to have an exchange of opinion about the Land Rover’s brake lights. Mum got sick. Dad sang. The battery light came on and we all prayed. The car’s electrics flickered on and off and we arrived in Mukono, our home of seven years, five hours later than planned and went to bed.

Over the next three days we explored the town, grown almost beyond recognition. The university where my parents had worked had grown from under 800 students in 2000, when we left, to over 8,000. The journey from there to the capital Kampala, which used to take us maybe half an hour, now took three times that. We met up with old friends, my parents’ colleagues mostly, and Tabitha, the lady who used to work for us. She cooked for us with her family at her home and, at the risk of sounding clichéd, we felt like Ugandans. We met students and young professionals we’d played with as children; they looked us up on Facebook on their phones.

After that, we spent a couple of days by the Nile, including Christmas Day when we ate tilapia and the mince pies Mum had smuggled in from England, and headed back across the border. We had one day left, which we spent in a national park, where we were lucky enough to see buffalo, hippo, rhino and two indolent lions all in the space of a few hours. “Gno gno gno, I’m a gnu!” volunteered Dad.

Back in Nairobi, preparing to leave for the airport in an apocalyptic downpour, I reflected on the trip. For us at least, things like water, electricity and internet were much better than I remembered, but both countries had far to go: what little I saw of Nairobi made the glossy “artist’s impression” of development plans in the in-flight magazine look wildly optimistic. I suppose most importantly, on both sides of the border, the people had been wonderful: warm, engaging, welcoming, quick to laugh. I would miss the tin roofs turned thunderous by rain, mosquitos slapped stiffly onto whitewashed walls, vast, bald-headed Marabou storks loitering balefully on lamp posts. Sitting in the Land Rover and watching East Africa go by: blue sky, green hills, yellow bark on the acacia trees, red earth.

An Ashram And Adios

When I think the word “England” I hear Polly Jean Harvey quiver “The West’s asleep… let England shake;” when I think “Cuba” I hear the slow, two-chord opening strum of Buena Vista Social Club’s Chan Chan; and when I think “La Paz,” I hear my friend Shiona Blackie’s normally softly-spoken Scottish accent biting “La Paz is an atrocity.” A few hours in and around a bus station is hardly enough time to come to any judgement of a city, but I didn’t come across anything to make me think she was wrong. Perhaps arriving on a Sunday meant the number of derelict buildings were more noticeable for the lack of people, but it can’t have made any difference to the dirt, litter and sickly smell of urine. I had half a day to kill which doubtless didn’t help, but I was uncommonly happy to finally set off on another twenty-four-hour-plus bus trip.

I sat next to a Bolivian lady who conducted the following conversation on her mobile every four hours or so:

“Hello my love? Hello darling. Hello sweetheart.” Listens. “We’re in [place along the way] my love, we’re on time, love.” Listens.”You too darling, you too my love. I’m fine my love, yes darling.” Listens. “Yes my sweetheart, yes darling. Yes my love. Thank you for calling, my darling. Thank you my love. OK. Kisses. Bye love. Bye darling. Bye sweetheart, my love. Bye.”

She was, apart from that sideshow, a lovely bus companion, and offered me sandwiches, fruit juice, sweets, chicken legs and indigestion pills from her bag, and apologised humbly for being kicked by me as I lurched towards the toilet at quarter to five in the morning. We complained cheerfully to each other as the stewardess failed to understand the DVD remote and made us watch Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, plus deleted scenes and bloopers reel, for six hours.

After a restorative night in a hostel in Lima, I figured out the two buses and taxi ride to Eco-Truly Park, a Vedic ashram around ninety minutes outside the city. My daily routine started at 6am with yoga and meditation, followed by breakfast at 8.30ish. I worked with the other volunteers until 1pm, for the first week helping the workmen with construction: hauling bricks or mortar, shifting earth, even trying a bit of bricklaying once. The second week I spent in the garden, which was harder work than it looked – my back would start complaining quickly as I shuffled along rows and rows of turned earth placing seeds. After lunch was time for non-work practicalities – clothes washing, going into the village to buy supplies – or talking to the devotees about Vaishnavism (which, in my ignorance, I incorrectly umbrellad under “Hinduism” in my previous blog). My thoughts on Vaishnavism are the material for another entry, so here I will just say that I was fascinated but far from convinced. I did not particularly appreciate being told that my not believing in karma or reincarnation was irrelevant because they exist regardless, nor being unable to extract any reason for those beliefs more detailed than “because it’s true.” Dinner followed at around 6pm, and as the sun goes down and the scant electric lights flicked on there was the option of going to the temple for a short ceremonio to Krishna, or just free time until bed at 9 or 10.

I lived in a hut with a few other volunteers – three at first, and then just one. Volunteers came and went, even in the short time I was there, and I suppose it must have become normal for the residents to see a steady flow of people move through.

The shower was a pipe in the wall, and I didn’t even bother to ask if there was hot water. Toilets were buckets, with sawdust nearby to muffle the worst of the smell. Food was included, three times a day, and varied from exotic and delicious – much of it I could not begin to recognise, but had as much flavour and texture as you could wish for – to barely edible (one breakfast time, being presented with two plain, chewy boiled potatoes was a low). It was all strictly vegetarian and very often vegan, so variety was perhaps a little lacking, but my body is unaccustomed to hours of yoga and manual labour, which made me invariably starving by the time each meal rolled around. I had never done yoga before, and was not capable of keeping up with most of it. My muscles were simply not able to lift, stretch or balance themselves in the way the instructor demonstrated, but it was still fun, often funny and a good way to meet people.

The people were worth meeting, as well: they varied from backpackers completely unaware there was a religious angle to the village at all, to shamans, monks and even an Australian gentleman who told me he channeled healing energy from extraterrestrials in the fifth dimension. It was a very interesting experience but not the easiest environment to live in, and I have now escaped to Lima before flying home. I wanted to squeeze in a couple more breakfasts in hostels, a semi-magical process of being virtually guaranteed to meet some great people. Listening to a friendly, funny and informed man from Ireland and girl from the US enthuse about their extensive travels in Peru and other South American countries, my assertion that my travel bug has gone began to feel like a joke. They began listing the first foods they were going eat when they got home after a year on the road: “Don’t!” I said. They looked at me strangely: “You’re going home,” they smiled, “you’re gonna get all of this long before us!” And I am… I had, briefly, almost forgotten. Not really, though: the glow of friends and family is just around the corner.

Thanks for reading.

A Bolivian Detour

I stayed just over a week in Arica, spending too much time in front of a computer screen, intermittently doing a bit of printing or selling internet time to the scant customers. I had a strange feeling of having too many roles packed into a small space of time: some days, I would have to stop and actively check, now, am I being a backpacker, a guest, working with the public, or occasionally being surrogate Dad. It was a nice stay, with the sunny beach nearby and a slow pace of life, but as a seven-day mark came and went, I found I was not sorry to never again have to sing along to Michael Jackson or the Black Eyed Peas, or hear 6-year-old Jordan scream “I DON’T WANT TO!” at the last pitch available to the human ear.

Facing down a resilient sandwich in Arica bus station, it began to sink in that I was about to spend the next six days on the move, crossing two borders in the process, without a route or itinerary planned, no reservations for transport or accomodation, or a even a guidebook to help me along the way. I also realised that, for the first time since leaving school, the travel bug had gone. Not that I wasn’t excited about Bolivia and Peru, far from it, but I had to accept that I was perfectly happy with the idea of being in Britain and not having any immediate plans to leave again.

That was still three weeks away though, and I had the first of a series of long-distance buses to think about. I trundled through crowd when my bus to San Pedro de Atacama was called, and was turned away by a youth in a reflective waistcoat who informed me I hadn’t bought a ticket to leave the station. I have been charged to enter many a bus station, but never to leave one. Using my rucksack as a croquet stick, I batted a middle-aged lady out of the queue, bought a bus station ticket with some small change, and presented it to the youth, who shredded it without enthusiasm.

Some twelve hours, two customs inspections and an unscheduled change of bus later, we arrived in San Pedro, a tiny speck of a village in the Atacama desert comically overpopulated with tourists. I found a hostel and made some friends to spend the day with, and enjoyed a trip to the feral rock formations in the Valley of the Moon and Death Valley, and admired the sun turning the Andes red before dinner. It all went past very quickly – spending just one night in a place makes it impossible to get any real feel for it. I went to be early and got up early, 6.45am, to leave for the Bolivian border.

I was about to embark on the famous three-day salt flat tour from San Pedro to a town called Uyuni, around twelve hours south of La Paz in Bolivia. I got in a minibus at 7.30, filled in immigration forms and greeted my new companions: a characterful middle-aged English couple from Leamington Spa, an Austrian lady on a solo world tour, and young Belgian couple. The latter got things off to a bad start by asking for the Manu Chao to be turned off, but more than redeemed themselves afterwards with good humour and genuine Belgian chocolate.

The first two days, before the salt flat, were spectacular and tiring, stunning yet repetetive. We drove through the desert, skin-burningly dry and so big and empty that distances became impossible to judge. We stopped at a series of landmarks: lakes turned brilliant colours by algae, rock formations blasted into dreamlike shapes by the unimpeded wind, geysers throwing plumes of sulphur-smelling smoke out of honeycomb-like ground. In between each, there would be maybe an hour of driving, sometimes in silence,  with only the click and snap of the wheels throwing pebbles against the underside of the car, and sometimes in conversation generated by our guide, who, unlike some others we met along the way, was cheerful, engaging and informative. He fed us oranges, the juice burning the cracks in my dried out lips.

Towards the end of the first day, having climbed steadily since crossing the border at 9am, altitude sickness finally began to kick in. Fortunately for me, I didn’t get affected too badly, although there was one moment where I got out of the 4×4 at over 5,000 metres, and after a while realised that my head felt about three feet away from my body, I couldn’t tell whether I was walking up- or downhill and I was breathing as though I’d been running. The guidebooks describe this as “light-headedness,” and is a symptom alongside headaches, difficulty breathing, and nausea. That night, sleeping in a hostel at 4,800 metres, I did get a headache, strong enough to disturb my sleep, but was spared the suffering of my companions, who along with worse headaches couldn’t eat or walk faster than a crawl. We shook our heads at each wordlessly as we drove past a chemical processing plant 5,200 metres above sea level, where the driver told us there was a workforce of three hundred, who would stay for three weeks at a time before descending for a month. There was a football pitch with two netted goals just outside the plant.

On the plus side, the nights high up in the desert presented us with the best view of the stars I have ever seen. Getting ready to leave a hostel at 5.30am, I had maybe thirty seconds when I was standing alone outside in the dark, and could see the sweep of the Milky Way like a giant, shimmering tunnel, before the 4×4’s engine roared on and the headlights blotted it away.

After that came the centrepiece of the tour, the salt flat itself. An area of ten thousand square kilometres, roughly the same size as Jamaica, it is perfectly named: it is made of salt, and it is flat. These two features make trick depth-perception photos obligatory, and they are a lot of fun, but the real effect of standing on in the middle of the flat can’t really be expressed in a photo or a description. The closest thing I can think of is the moment in The Matrix where Morpheus takes Neo from the real world into the teaching program for the first time. We got to see the sun rise over a mountain, stretching our shadows out as far as the eye could see. There were a couple of sights added on, such as the “island” hill covered with hundreds of cartoon-perfect cactus trees, and, just outside the salt flat, a train cemetary of old steam engines left over from the first railways carrying the salt away, but that was effectively the end of the trip. My companions and I shared a farewell beer in Uyuni after saying goodbye and thank you to our guide, and then went our separate ways: half got in another 4×4 to head back to Chile, and I hung around in town until the sun went down and my bus to the capital showed up.

The bus was in better condition that the road, and despite not being the most expensive option, did at least come with blankets, necessary as the temperatures dropped below zero. I was on the top deck, surrounded by a contingent of Quebecois students made loud and bold by weight of numbers. I was thinking about how to cross the border into Peru, hoping the buses would work themselves out. They usually do. We wrapped blankets around our legs like invalids, and the bus shuddered and jolted out of Uyuni and began the twelve hour trip to La Paz.