THIS past week has been about as eventful as any I’ve previously had, so rather than trying to squash everything into one big post, I’m going to make better use of the fodder while I have it and spread it out over several blog updates.
When the budget does not match the ambition of one’s research trip, circuitous routes to destinations and riskily short layovers are necessary inconveniences.
For example, for my week-long field trip to Nigeria, instead of booking flights directly from Johannesburg to Lagos, I booked a flight with one stop in Nairobi. As if flying into Lagos on your own for the first time wasn’t exciting enough, the trip that I had booked featured just a one-hour stopover, meaning that even a short delay in the first flight would likely mean missing the second.
Guess what happened.
It’s just as well that I don’t believe in omens because the easily-led would certainly have been predicting disaster just a few hours into my Nigerian excursion. Within minutes of arriving at O.R Tambo Airport in Jo’burg, I received a text message from Tripsta.ie, informing me that my first flight would be delayed by 45 minutes.
Uncertain whether I was even entitled to an alternate flight, and without the small fortune it would cost to call the Irish number for the travel website, I did what every decent Irishman does when caught in a bind. I called my mammy.
Thankfully, she was able to make contact with Tripsta, who told her that even if I did miss the connecting flight, Kenya Airways were obliged to put me on the next available one out of Nairobi to Lagos. I exhaled for the first time in a few minutes and reasoned that, one way or another, I would get there and there was nothing to be gained at this point by fretting over a change in arrival time.
I take the same view on destiny or fate as I do on omens but those who abide by such silliness would have had a field day upon hearing who I was seated next to on the flight to Nairobi.
“Did you enjoy your stay in South Africa,” asked my flight companion, who looked like a slightly older, African Indiana Jones in a brown fedora and beige jacket. I responded that I had only been there a week but that I had loved it so far and was now on my way to Nigeria to conduct interviews as part of my PhD research.
His interest piqued, he started asking me about the nature of my thesis. After only two or three questions, it was apparent that he was enquiring from a better informed position than most so I asked him about his occupation. As it turned out, Indiana had been a lecturer in International Relations but had left academia to become a member of the national parliament in the newest state in the world, South Sudan.
It would be hard to think of a more interesting travel companion, given the nature of my enquiry and the purpose of the trip on which I was at that time embarking. Normally, I wouldn’t subject people to a very detailed description of my research project but, given his interest and background, I provided my new travel companion with a thorough breakdown of my objectives, sample, methods and theoretical aspirations.
He provided some valuable feedback, particularly in relation to the time frame I am employing in my study. Without going into too great detail, he advised me to look at the reasoning behind some of the defence policies of the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor to the African Union. Taking this into account, he said, would assist in me in achieving one of my primary research goals, understanding why African leaders committed to ostensibly more progressive defence arrangements when the switchover occurred from the OAU to the AU.
We also discussed the formative years of South Sudan, which only gained independence from Sudan in 2011. The region has been the site of two large-scale civil wars, the second of which officially ended in 2005, and many lower level ethnic conflicts, some of which are still ongoing, that have left millions dead and many more displaced.
“Nothing can happen until the leaders can agree upon something. All they are doing at the moment is fighting amongst themselves,” he responded when I asked him what the current situation looked like in his home country.
During a break in our conversation, I asked an air hostess if we were likely to land in time for me to make my connecting flight and, to my surprise, she sounded quite positive. She said that we had made up good time and that the flight to Lagos was leaving from the same terminal. The fact that I had managed to bring enough for a week without having to check any luggage further increased my chances of my original plans remaining unscuppered.
Sadly, though, scuppered they were. I was at the gate just in time to see it being closed and to be informed that I would have made it, had I been three minutes earlier.
The flight staff from Kenya Airways informed myself and five other passengers, who had been hoping to catch the flight to Lagos, that the next available flight was 27 hours later, the following morning at 11am. We would have to apply for transit visas and stay in a hotel in Nairobi, for which they were thankfully footing the bill.
Nairobi is a different entity from Jo’burg entirely and it’s apparent from the moment you exit the airport. For one thing, it’s considerably warmer, although as the only non-African on our Kenya Airways-organised bus, I think I found the heat more oppressive than anyone else. All along the route from Jomo Kenyatta International to our hotel on Moi Avenue, there were people positioned on either side of the road, engaged in a wide variety of activities. Some were walking, some pushing wheelbarrows, others were stopped and engaged in conversation and many were selling a selection of wares, either from stalls on the side of the road or by standing in between lanes of traffic.
The traffic was chaotic, without congestion I would imagine our journey would have taken twenty minutes but it was almost an hour and a half before we were at the hotel. We arrived at the Best Western Meridian at around 9am and the staff there couldn’t have been nicer. A teenager working in the lobby even allowed me to use his mobile phone to text the driver I had booked in Lagos to tell him of the delay. I made sure to reimburse him handsomely later.
It’s only in Africa that I’ve got the financial clout to make my reimbursements handsome but I’m following through on a 12-year-old promise to myself in doing so. I still remember the thrill of getting a decent tip and the scorn that I’d privately pour on cheapskates from my time as a valet in a five star hotel during a J1 summer in Rhode Island. Back then, I swore that I’d always do right by people in that position when I was in the role of the customer as a grown up. I’m sure back then I probably assumed that by the age of 31, I would be able to bestow my largesse on hotel employees the world over but I’m glad to be able to do it here at least.
After a restless sleep, I decided to explore Nairobi in the afternoon. I went for a walk along Moi Avenue, which was thronged with pedestrians and vehicles by noon.
It was necessary to pick my steps carefully as I went, not only due to the volume of people but also because of the vendors who lined portions of the footpath, sitting on the floor and selling everything from colourful fruit to belts and books (incidentally, every book-seller I came across had multiple publications by different authors on the subject of Donald Trump). Walking through Nairobi didn’t require the same aggression that is sometimes required, however, in other big cities with similar populations. In fact, a good proportion of the people that I passed by were stopped and deep in what seemed like friendly conversation.
After walking less than a block, it became apparent that the boundary wasn’t always clear between where the road ended and the footpath began. On numerous occasions I saw vehicles, including a bus, mount traffic islands and footpaths so as to circumvent an obstacle. One definitely should not walk around Nairobi with their head down.
It also took a bit of time to get used to crossing at intersections, due to a lack of pedestrian lights. By following others, however, I quickly got the hang of making your move when the traffic became logjammed. Like water trickling through cracks, people would bolt from their spot on the path and slip between the stationary vehicles as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
By the looks of things, however, no driver wanted to be caught with a team of pedestrians in front of them when traffic freed up so they would all pull up within a hair of the vehicle in front of them so as to try and prevent people ending up in their way. This meant having to employ a slalom strategy when crossing the road, moving from one gap to the next, sometimes squeezing through the space that a wing mirror created between a bus and a truck and hoping to Christ that neither moved until you were through.
For the entire day, I did not see a single other white person on the streets of Nairobi and, entirely because of my own insecurities rather than the actions of anyone around me, I felt quite self-conscious of the difference in my apperance. I drew somewhat curious looks as I walked around on my own, sweating profusely, but anyone I spoke with was very welcoming. When I was queueing up for water in a shop at one point, a little girl of no more than five or six stood next to her mother in front of me and with childlike innocence, thought nothing of staring straight up at me with a big lovely smile on her face for over a minute.
The very slight level of unease that I felt at being so clearly out of my usual environment did make me think of how incredibly difficult it must be for people who land in a country, like Ireland, where they look obviously different from the locals and may have to deal with cretins who view their difference in appearance with suspicion or contempt.
One of the friendliest welcomes of the day that I got was from an assault rifle-bearing security guard at an ATM booth. All ATMs in the City are indoors and separate from the regular bank branch and all are manned by at least one armed guard. It took about ten attempts for me to find an ATM that would take my card and I quickly got used to the sight of bored looking men with an AK47 in one hand and their phone in the other.
Noticing my frustration at having been declined once more by a cash machine, one of the guards enquired what country my card was from.
“Ah Ireland,” he said upon finding out, “when did you get here? What do you think of my country?”
Truthfully, I told him that I loved walking around a city that is entirely different from what I am used to, that the people seemed friendly and that I wish I had longer than a day to explore here.
“It is a beautiful city and country. You must tell people in Ireland that they should come and visit and you must come back too and spend more time here,” he continued before going on to laugh when I told him how much I struggled with the 30 degree plus weather.
By the time I headed back to my hotel that evening, I was glad of the flight delay, as it meant I’d seen someplace that had not been on my itinerary but which I felt better for having experienced. Based upon my admittedly limited exposure, Nairobi seems to be the home of more chaos and poverty than Jo’burg but the people that I’ve engaged with in both cities share the same welcoming demeanour and a complete absence of stand-offish-ness that is much more common between strangers in Western cities.
So it was with a sense of contentment and optimism that I sat down to my dinner in the hotel before bed that night. Since Kenya Airways was footing the bill, I even decided to add to my merriment by ordering a big juicy T-bone steak with a more than generous helping of sides.
With the first bite into my steak, I felt a crack in my mouth that didn’t feel like it had come from the bone in the meat. Much to the disgust, I’m sure, of anyone sitting near me, I pushed the contents of my mouth into a napkin only to find a filling with a fair chunk of one of my molars attached to it.
Good thing I don’t believe in omens.