Jack Siler, 2018-01-02
In 1986 I returned to Kenya where I’d lived and traveled before. It had always been a magic place. Nairobi was just a city like many others, struggling to get rich. Many did. They were mostly white and foreign or of the Kikuyu tribe if they were Kenyan. Politicians were Kikuyu. High rise buildings were spotting around the city’s center. It was about money, not magic and on the city’s outskirts some of the largest slums in Africa were being built. But Mombassa was still a marvel, a mix of coastal tribes; Arabic descendants, Indian and Pakistanis and the whites were a minor factor in the population. It buzzed and bubbled as a port, THE port of all of eastern Africa. It held the mysterious contrasts of dhows that plied Arabian seas and tankers, freighters varied from small, rusty tubs to modern tankers offloading oil. The market was rich with magic foods like tall and tubular green pineapples. The first man who tried to sell me one had gotten my best, smiling refusal. “Why you not like my pineapples”, he said. “Bwana, I’ll come back when they get ripe.” He knew. I wasn’t the first mizungu who’d told him pineapples aren’t supposed to be green. He protested. Of course they’re ripe. We bantered a bit and he whipped out his panga, lopped the top off the nearest one and expertly carved out a taste of the sweetest, ripest, most essence-of-pineapple I’d tasted in my whole life. Even the ones in Mexico hadn’t been that good, say nothing of those poor examples I’d had in Hawaii. We parted with three and had consumed them in two days. They became a staple. The Mombassa market was full of tricks like that: the incredible crabs from Lamu, spices piled high for cooks from all over the world, fruits, vegetables, fish, and animals a foreigner had never tried. That was long before that I had first discovered the Mombassan marvels. What interested me was a piece of coast that no one knew where I rented a house every time I came to the country. White sand, a coral reef as exciting as any in the Pacific, palms that hovered over the beach – and no one. A house. ONE house shared almost a kilometer of that beach with no one except a group of men from a mile-distant village who came down every morning to fish. By 10 AM they were gone. That was the magic I knew of the coast of Kenya. The other part of my Kenyan world was nowhere, which is to say, lost out there in the bush. I’d traveled, camped, lived in most of the remote corners of the country. Paris was – and is – home. I consider it to be the most marvelous city in the world. It may be disintegrating and losing its charm as most cities are; its population and politicians have reduced its joys, and yet there’s nowhere that comes close the Parisian urban magic for me. When I’d first discovered the virgin parts of Kenya it was the opposite of Paris. It was mankind unspoiled, the virginity of its nature untouched. If a bunch of media-mad Generals and Washington pols have ruined the word awesome, what I’d found in pre-1980 Kenya can best be described by the pre-political word AWESOME! I’d returned in about 1980 and found some very worrisome developments, but what had been a rivulet of so-called modernization problems had become a torrent. A Danish friend, Nils Jorgenson, had loaned me an SUV. Alan Root, one of the first great photographer/filmmakers of wildlife had come up with camping gear, a tent, cot, lamps and the like. I set off for what I expected to be a month or six weeks in bush country along the Kenya/Tanzania border. I had a friend who was born and raised near Lake Baringo in what was then a remote piece of the north central part of the country, Will. I’d called his mother who said he was unreachable, managing the farm of the Chief of the Masaii down in the southwest. I managed to get a rough set of instructions of how to get there via a maze of roads and tracks and I set off. The truckers of Kenya were in the middle of what had been a long strike. Most affected was the entire nation’s gasoline supply. I’d managed to fill enough jerry cans to last the trip I was expecting to take. It wasn’t the rainy season where I was going, but a couple of days before there had been torrential, tropical rains which had done what “black cotton soil” loves best, turned it into a spongy trap into which unsuspecting wheels would sink to the axle. Those who had preceded me on various tracks had slipped and slid and churned things into unrecognizable tracks that were the devil to negotiate. And it started to get dark without a sign of life for mile after mile. Twilight. I was lost. Setting up camp on soggy ground is not my idea of fun. I came to a patch of black cotton so big that I turned around. My 50,000 scale maps were no help. As I retraced my tracks in the dwindling light I saw a distant pair of what seemed to be headlights. I frantically blinked mine, high, low, high, on, off and got blinks in return. We struggled through enough tracks to confront each other and Lo! I was in the company of a gasoline tanker truck! The driver jumped out. The strike ended yesterday,” he said, “and I’m lost. And this truck’s too big to just turn around and try one track after another. Last thing I want is to get stuck out here up to my axles.” Like many city citizens, spending the night alone in the bush turned his blood cold with fear of what was out there in the wilderness. As we were talking, I noticed a flickering light in the far distance. Another car? I ran for my binoculars. No. A lamp hung outside a hut. The trucker agreed to turn his lights so they could be seen from the hut. “Where are you headed,” I asked. I could barely believe it when his answer was that we were both going to Will’s farm. I headed off in a straight line, praying I wouldn’t hit any black cotton – and I didn’t. The man in the hut had trouble believing someone like me would turn up after dark. Know Will? Of course, everyone knew Will. I’ll take you to him. I turned my Land Cruiser and blinked the lights at the trucker who blinked back. Then my guide took me on one of the wilder trips I’d ever had in the bush. We went through a swamp almost up to the doors, chased off elephants that were blocking a track, and worked our way through a herd of buffalo. Finally, indeed, there was the farm. Will has as much trouble believing I’d shown up at night as I was relieved at finding him. When I added that there was a petrol tanker who got lost and was waiting, Will went wild. I could have brought him a gift of gold, but it would not have matched a tanker full of the gasoline needed to start the farm equipment up again. He was wild with joy as we went back, found the truck and led it to the Masaii farm. When the hubbub died down, Will offered me a drink at the “house” which was an assembled group of buildings and tents. The “living/dining” room was a three-walled affair with a slanted, palm-thatched roof. The fourth side was open to the trees and the Tana River. A tent was the bedroom for Will and his wife, another served for their children and a separate, small building was the kitchen. Rustic Africa in all its glory. “I suppose you’ll want a bath,” he said, sure of the answer. We had another drink as my bath was prepared. I wondered where there was a bathroom. We brought each other up to date since we’d last been together. Then a man came to announce that the bath was prepared. By the light of a torch, he led me through a patch of forest. Lions were coughing in the distance, out hunting for dinner. There were already hyenas making their frightful giggle, because they had already found their meal. We finally came to a clearing lit by torches. A huge bathtub, rescued from the old Norfolk Hotel sat in the middle of the cleared spot and next to it an open barrel with a fire in it that heated water that filled the tub with steaming water. The moon was almost full and I realized the “bathroom” was on a slight bluff above the river. Below, a small herd of elephants were bathing in the river, splashing water, trumpeting quietly. I stripped, slipped into the heated river water in the tub and relaxed, surrounded by the night noises and silences. It was the very essence of African magic as it once was.