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.

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A Thousand Doctors But No Cotton Buds

Flight CU0152 touched down in Havana three hours late. Just before beginning our descent, the captain announced over the intercom that by Cuban law the plane had to be fumigated with a non-toxic substance, and apologised for any inconvience. I had just woken up from an unscheduled siesta and, not properly awake, had an image of a bed-ridden Fidel ranting about dirty immigrants. As the airhostess marched down the aisle, clouds of white smoke pouring from an aerosol can, the thought made me begin giggling to myself, much to the alarm of the shy Chinese girl sitting next to me.

My good humour didn’t last long. At the baggage claim my backpack emerged without my sleeping bag, which had been strapped to the outside. When the last bag had been claimed and I was alone in the arrival hall, I went to the Lost and Found desk. A woman was typing into a typewriter: she looked up, made eye contact, then returned to her work as though she hadn’t seen me. I asked to speak to someone – wait, wait. Fifteen minutes. A man wandered into the office, greeted the woman, lit a cigarette, and wandered out. I found a manager and complained. Fifteen minutes later the smoker returned, looked at my ticket and sent me to another Lost and Found in the next hall. The man there shrugged. Es imposible, señor… I gave up.

I agreed a fee of twenty-five convertibles with the taxi driver. He was friendly, reasonably chatty, pointing out landmarks, transvestites and drunk drivers with casual expertise as we went along. At around 9pm we pulled up in an unlit street in the Old City outside an address I’d been given over the internet. The driver took my hint and agreed to change twenty convertibles into Cuban pesos, and handed me a wad of notes: five hundred. Then, “Thirty-five convertibles, my friend,” he said. Twenty-five, we said? He shrugged. “Thirty-five,” he said.

Inside the room was pleasant, spacious and clean, and the couple friendly. In the morning, as I was leaving, Federico beckoned me over. “Don’t make friends with people in the street,” he advised. “Even I don’t make friends with them. Don’t change money in the street. Don’t buy cigars in the street. There is no salsa festival. Don’t let them show you bars. They will all be very friendly,” he finished, “but they just want your money.”

Havana Vieja. The thick smell of cigar smoke and the rank odour of gasoline. Taxi? Taxi? Classic car after classic car. You wan’ buy book, my fren’? French palaces, Spanish social clubs, American skyscrapers, English hotels. Amigo! You wan’ cigar? Violins, maracas, conga drums. Amigo! Amigo! Where you from? Thick sandwiches with unidentifiable meat. Taxi amigo? Cool mulattos, lounging purple-blacks, haughty golden whites, cruising latinos. You wan’ pretty girl, my fren’? Coffee and cigarette smoke, double-basses and guitars. Good restaurant amigo, good price for you –

I spent the day wandering, trying to get a feel for the place. I had been warned that Cuban food was awful, but I took a punt on fish being a good option. I ate well in a cafe with more staff than diners, and an elderly trio of musicians playing son, the guitarist completely unconcerned that he was missing a finger on his fretting hand.

If the food was not as bad as I had feared, Cubano Spanish was; a sun-baked thickening agent that removed every “S”, cut off the end of most words and slurred all non-essential consonants. For single words it made things hard, but for sentences and actual conversations it made things almost impossible. My first stop after leaving Havana, for example, was a town three hours to the west, in prime tobacco-growing countryside, called Viñales. I would pronounce that “Been-ya-lez.” In Cuba, it is pronounced “Een-ya­-leh.” I felt like I’d regressed about a year in the two hours the plane had taken from Cancún. I am not a linguistician so I don’t know if it is at all accurate, but I consoled myself with the comparison that if someone trying to learn English in New York then went on holiday to Jamaica, it wouldn’t necessarily reflect badly on their English if they struggled to get by.

My guidebook referred to Viñales as “bucolic” about nine times per page. Not knowing what bucolic means I couldn’t say if that’s true, but it was definitely very nice. Flat green fields sprawled away from the small town in every direction, towards the north interrupted by huge, sheer rock formations that support a rapidly-growing climbing industry. After the abrasive first impression of Havana, a old-fashioned, rural atmosphere was very welcome. I spent a day on a bike and another on a horse, swam in a pool in the depths of a pitch-black cave, and tried to smoke a cigar in a rocking chair. The fields were growing maize, rice, vegetables and, of course, tobacco, the heavy damp smell of the leaves pervading the entire region. Farmers wandered around in sombreros, walking in rubber boots, cycling spindly ancient bicycles or pulled along by horse and cart.

I began to see, and work out, the paradoxes of Cuba a little more clearly (and, in the process, get to grips with the accent). The campesino who took me on the horseback tour told me that even though his produce was collected by officials once a month, he was paid only once a year. On the occasions like this when he was able to bring in some convertibles by giving tours to foreigners, he could buy chicken to supplement his diet of rice, beans and potatoes. I asked if he bought into the idea of the system, even if he didn’t like the practical results. “Not really,” he said. “Not many people do. But we can’t say anything – if you do, the police take you away.” And when Fidel and Raul die? “Who knows? Maybe it will get better. Maybe it will get worse. Who can say?”

Shortly after this conversation, maybe an hour’s ride away from the nearest village that would appear on any map, we passed a hut and a shed filled with drying tobacco leaves. Outside was a campesino smoking a cigar and a mulatto woman sitting in a chair, watching a boy of three or four marching happily around in a shiny, perfectly fitting pair of leg braces.

That night, I ate a mouthwatering lobster dinner, and found out afterwards that lobster is illegal for Cuban citizens to eat: they are allowed to buy it, but only if they are a registered host and serve it to guests.

I was curious as to how the dual economy worked in practise. In Havana, I had paid a taxi driver ten convertibles for a thirty-minute round trip to the bus station and back to buy my ticket to Viñales. There, for the son of my elderly host, a university graduate working on a building site on the street I was now staying on, that was a month’s wage. Why wasn’t there a huge social divide, I asked? What about all the people whose jobs didn’t involve contact with tourists? My grandmotherly host, Loly, sighed, and said everyone wanted tourist money. I was hardly spared, either; the horse tour, for which I was paying by duration, included an hour of the guide stopping by at a friend’s house for rum and gossip. Loly hugged me goodbye at the end at then presented me with the bill, which had the price of the room and then a long list of separate charges for everything else, down to every bit of drinking water I’d taken.

Unsure of whether I was loving the distinctiveness of Cuba or, well, not, I switched from the fields of the north-west to a bay city on the southern coast. Cienfuegos proclaimed itself “The Pearl of the South,” “The Paris of Cuba,” – I have not been to Paris, but what leapt to mind for me was not France’s capital but Miss Havisham. The city was beautiful once, undeniably, but now was faded and decayed, if still striking. I took it very easy, mostly trying to capture that impression on my camera. I went to the cathedral on Christmas Eve and listened vaguely to the Spanish priest, more diverted by the range of ages and skin colours in the congregation. The Christmas tradition there was far, far removed from what it is in the western world, with little mention of it until the twenty-fourth and then for the majority of people nothing more than a celebratory meal with family. I barely noticed the Day itself, as it happened to fall on a Sunday: the shops were closed and the streets quiet as they were on the other Sundays I was in Cuba. There were a few more people on the Bucanero beers at 10am than usual, perhaps, but on Monday morning life returned absolutely to normal.

I spent three days in Cienfuegos, the highlight a boat cruise in the lovely bay and meeting for the first time, I felt, Cubans who didn’t treat me purely as a cash machine but were friendly, generous and engaging. I was half-tempted to stay longer, but I had nothing particular to stay for so I moved on to Trinidad, a few hours to the east.

Trinidad, visually, fully lived up to its reputation for being a gorgeous town caught in the 1850s. As an experience, it lived up to its reputation for being a tourist trap. By now my tongue was as used to brushing away Taxi? Taxi? Taxi? as my hands were to brushing away flies, but here it began to feel like I was being hassled. In the museums it was just as bad, but in reverse – the staff didn’t even pretend to care. I remember one museum where the lady behind the desk, slumped on an elbow, recited the entrance charges without even looking at me. “Two pesos entry. One peso to take photos.” Curious to see if I could ruffle her soporified feathers, I asked if I could reclaim my extra peso if by the end I hadn’t seen anything I wanted to take a picture of. She looked at me, blinked, and repeated a little louder, “One peso to take photos.”

I didn’t dwell on it. I met a lovely French couple, listened to a fantastic live band or two and escaped for an idyllic day on a nearby beach, then, with the end of my time feeling close, I travelled upwards to Santa Clara. Santa Clara is Ché city: he’s a pretty popular figure in any part of Cuba, but here he was a demi-god. I enjoyed the towering statue at his memorial and the fervent socialist quotations carved into stone around it, and the billboards with aphorisms from Fidel, but was again rudely treated by security guards who were clearly bored of tellling people the museum was closed for New Year. Chevrolets rolled by with the “V”s scratched out. I went to the cinema in the evening to watch a Cuban film from the ‘40s, which I found impressive, and spent most of the next day in the central square, where bands played in the bandstand and children ran around under the lazy, watchful gaze of young mothers. By now, my eyes had become accustomed enough to Cuban life to see evidence of the social gap I knew had to exist: half the children had bikes, motorized toy cars or skateboards and new, western-looking clothes. The other children did not. I could see it in the adults: some people walked around in sunglasses, wearing American Eagle, DKNY and Converse, in that order. They would be found in the same cafes or restaurants that I was in. Other people would hang around outside those places, wearing second- or third-hand, faded clothes, asking quickly for cigarettes, pencils or soap. Things that were hard to come by without convertibles.

New Year’s Day was coming, and I had to get back to Havana. By this time, I had admitted to myself that it wasn’t much fun in Cuba on my own. The lack of hostels had made it hard to meet other travellers, and the fact that there was only one tourist-approved bus company made it hard to be flexible when I did. The absence of internet as access to moral support was beginning to hit as well; I’d been there almost two weeks. I told myself that I only had three days to last in Havana and then I could return to Mexico, succesfully able to tell people that yes, I’d “done” Cuba.

I arrived on New Year’s Eve and was befriended by a group of Canadians, who took me to a bar with a lively band and clientele and bought beers until midnight hit. Again, for Cubans the celebration was a relatively low-key, mostly family affair so for me it was a good a way to see in the New Year as any.

In the morning, I braced myself for the barrage of men trying to sell me things I didn’t want and ageless girls in too much makeup hissing at me as soon as I walked out of the house. Out I went, into the sun, and found the city… tranquil. It was virtually empty of touts. The streets were half-full, with thousands of people sleeping off last night’s food and drink. My last three days in Havana were brilliant. Time flew by in a blur of delicious seafood, amazing architecture straight from the 1950s, art galleries, revolutionary museums and live music. I walked into a red English phonebox, down a flight of stairs and found myself in a dark, intimate jazz club. I saw a classic Hollywood film in a cinema full of Cubans who greeted each other as though we were in a restaurant. I walked through a white city of headstones in the Necropolis, angels peering down at me from between crosses. I found myself planning my next trip, even, and very soon it was time to go.

A few final reflections. I don’t know whether I was just unlucky, but I found apart from a few exceptions the Cubans were by far the least friendly Latin Americans I have ever come across. I don’t know whether it is so simple to draw a line from a zealously patriarchal government to a lack of social incentive, to boredom and finally to indifference. I have never, in any other country, had so many people brush me off, answer questions in unhelpful monosyllables, refuse to make eye contact or even turn their backs on me mid-question as I had in Cuba. I am sad to say that and I don’t know why it happened, but especially with people working directly in tourist-related jobs, I often found myself coming up against a boredom that had calcified into disregard.

I did, in the end, have several fascinating conversations about the regime. I was saddened by the levels of fear that this would often provoke: the most in-depth talk I had, in Cienfuegos, was conducted almost in a whisper, the lady speaking to me casting nervous glances towards the door the whole while. She reiterated what the farmer in Viñales had said, that it was very dangerous to talk badly of the government, that the people wanted more freedom, that nobody knew what would happen after the Castros. “Until then,” she said, raising an eyebrow and tilting a palm towards the ceiling, “Viva la revolución.” One exception was my final host, a lady who in her own words was “eighty-six. They can’t do anything to me now that won’t happen soon anyway.” She asked me if I had been to Cuba before, and when I said no, sighed that it was better before. Thrown by her first question, I asked before what, expecting her perhaps to say before Raúl took over, or before George W Bush, but she looked at me archly and said, “Fifty-three years before.”

Conversely, as a traveller, the country felt, distinctively, safe. A poet I met in Trinidad and spoke to about Mexico laughed when I asked if there was any organised crime in Cuba. When I left the jazz club in Havana, at 1.30 or 2am, there were couples wandering around with toddlers in their arms, girls sauntering home on their own. I don’t know what to make of that, either. I thought that with the relative poverty crime would be a real problem, but, as far as I could tell, it barely exists.

So I found Cuba as contradictory as all the literature and hearsay makes out. It is a country with more qualified doctors than the whole of Africa, yet many of them work as taxi drivers because the money’s better. It has a public internet usage lower than Haiti’s, but an education system and literacy rate that puts the USA to shame. It looks like the Caribbean but it feels like being in Russia. I’m still not sure, when people ask how it was, what to say.

I left Cuba baffled and enriched, and headed back to the comforting familiarity of Mexico.