Monday, September 28, 2015

Travelling Hopefully - A Conclusion of Sorts

So I went to Africa, I saw a little of Kenya and Tanzania and a (very) little of how people in those countries live.  So what do I think of it generally?  I loved the trip, the place is beautiful and I can understand how people can fall in love with it and stay forever like my host in Mombasa.  I couldn't I'm afraid, I'm too soft and too pampered and too addicted to petty little luxuries like being able to drink from the tap when I'm thirsty.  Although if I could arrange the necessary comforts I might make an exception for Stone Town.

Impressions; Kenya is poor.  Tanzania is very poor.  Things don't work as well as they could or should.  Many of the things which in our western self indulgence we would call essentials are simply unavailable to the local population and they just have to do without.  The newspapers are full of corruption stories (although I personally only saw one instance when one of our drivers had to discreetly hand some cash to a traffic policeman) and on top of that Kenya has an ongoing security problem due to its involvement in the struggle against Al Shabaab up in Somalia and Tanzania has an education problem due to some idiot policy decisions made decades ago.

Still things are not all bad.  Technology and equipment might be shaky but if sheer muscle power and unremitting effort can make something work then it will work.  And if it doesn't work then something will be done.  I intended to travel by train from Mombasa to Nairobi.  That didn't work, the train broke down and couldn't be repaired within the timeframe I required.  Instead the train manager detailed one of the policemen I had noticed in the dining car the previous night to take me into Voi which is a bus terminal.  There he ensured that I got on the right bus to Nairobi and wasn't cheated on price.  I had called the guy who took me out to the National Museum when I stayed in Nairobi asking him to pick me up from the train station.  I called him back and asked him to pick me up from the bus station instead.  No problem.  A couple of hours later he called me back and suggested I ask the bus driver to drop me at one of Nairobi's outer suburbs where he would be waiting.  This would save two journeys through Nairobi traffic.  I spoke to the bus driver, no problem.  I got off the bus where my driver had been waiting for an hour to pick me up and made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare.  The train might not work but Kenya does.

I find it a little irritating when people expound on the mess that is Africa.  We have had thousands of years to get our own countries to their current standard of semi acceptability.  Africa decolonised about sixty years ago leaving behind a legacy of borders in the wrong place, tribal hostilities accentuated (and sometimes deliberately stoked) by this or that colonial power and also a glimpse of a new possible world without any very clear signpost as to how to get there.  Check back with me in three of four centuries and we'll see how Africa is doing then.  What I do know is that the human material it has to work with is as impressive as any on the planet.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Travelling Hopefully - The Lunatic Express

Yep, this is the big one.  The actual reason for my trip to Africa, the opportunity to ride on the Lunatic Express - the train linking (somewhat tenuously) Mombasa and Nairobi.  I arrived at the railway station at three in the afternoon and rather nervously approached the tin shack which in defiance of probability announced itself to be the "Upper Class Booking Office - First & Second Class".  I handed over my booking form, it was examined, phonecalls were made and I was informed that my ticket was actually on the train.  When it arrived at four the ticket would be brought to the booking office and I could pick it up.  Yes, there was a place I could store my luggage, it was in a shack looked after by "the old man".  The shack's principal defences against theft were a door that stuck and the no doubt lionlike courage of the aforementioned old man who volunteered the information that he was seventy eight years old.  He also acted as a porter when the train arrived.  To this day I don't know if the old man was an employee of the railways or simply a guy who owned a shack and a trolley.

Returning from sightseeing in Mombasa I found the old man sitting on his trolley outside his shack, he moved along a little and we sat in companionable silence.  At least I thought it was companionable, he may have thought I was a standoffish prick.  Some evidence for the latter theory can be found in the fact that he eventually invited me to wander around, take photos and get myself a drink.

I wandered around, took photos and got myself a drink.  Oh yes and I almost got myself arrested.  I was taking a photo of a rather pretty little bird (it looked like a sparrow but was yellow) when a lazy shout drew my attention.  A large man in a red t-shirt standing in front of an adjacent, rather shabby building beckoned me over.  He motioned me to sit down and introduced another large man (his rank indicated by his button up check shirt) as the local chief of Mombasa railway police and asked me what I meant by taking photos of police buildings.  Wasn't I aware that this was a security issue and strictly forbidden?

To be fair there was a sign which I had noticed earlier indicating the building was a police station but I had completely forgotten it in my eagerness to photograph the little bird which was sitting directly outside it.  The two men quizzed me on my identity (or rather, t-shirt guy did.  Check shirt was too high rank to speak), examined my passport, asked my purpose in Kenya.  Check shirt examined my photos as I nervously attempted to explain how bird focused and non security threatening they really were.  I also accidentally showed him a photo of my mother.  Possibly it was the thought of that saintly, silver haired figure weeping over her son in a Kenyan prison that decided him but Check shirt returned the camera to me and gave a nod.  Taking the hint T-shirt read me a "don't do it again" lecture and sent me on my way.

Duly chastened I bumbled around Mombasa station taking photos of headless monkeys and signs saying "Mombasa".  The train rolled in bang on time, which is to say, an hour late.  I trotted off to get my ticket and then returned to the old man who examined my ticket and hauled my luggage to the appropriate first class carriage.  Excitement mounted within me.  I had arranged this part of the holiday all by myself and I fully expected it to go horribly wrong.  It seemed as though I would be crowned with success.  Little did I know that the sound I heard was the sun melting the wax on my wings.

The train was exactly what I expected, a tired collection of colonial era rolling stock hauled by a battered and (as it turned out) none too reliable diesel.  The train was due to depart at 7.30 and at about that time a steward approached me and informed me that I could board the train.  He showed me my first class sleeper compartment.  It was tired and rundown but the seat bed was surprisingly comfortable and there was a cool breeze blowing in through the broken window.  I settled back to enjoy my ride.

Four hours later I was still waiting.  The train sat and stubbornly refused to move as the hours ticked by.  I had had an excellent chicken dinner in the restaurant car looking out at the sight of Mombasa railway station pointblank refusing to slide by.  The only other people in the restaurant car were a group of policemen.  At least I assumed they were policemen as civilians normally don't bring semi automatic weapons into the first class dining car.

Finally when the clock was touching midnight the diesel gave an unearthly shriek and with a certain weary dignity the train shook, rattled and rolled out of Mombasa, destination; Nairobi.  I slept very well despite the fact that one of the seat rests refused to stay up and I had to lie under it all night.  I awoke the next day and looked out at the Kenyan scenery which was not moving past at all.  This didn't seem right and confirmation of this fact was provided when the train manager knocked on my cabin door and informed me that the train had broken down just past Voi (about a third of the way to Nairobi).  The train would be hauled back to Voi by a convenient engine but then we would have to wait for a repair crew to make their way from Mombasa.

How long would all this take? I asked.  About an hour for the repair crew to arrive, another hour to fix the train and then it would be twelve hours to Nairobi assuming nothing else went wrong.  It was eight o'clock in the morning, on that estimate the earliest I would get into Nairobi railway station would be 10pm and my flight left at 11.  There was no getting around it, the Lunatic Express had failed me.  I would have to find some other way of getting to Nairobi.

Travelling Hopefully - A German Bar, an Ethiopian Restaurant, an English Breakfast and Kenyan Prostitutes

As the above title makes clear Mombasa is a bit of a melting pot.  I flew in from Zanzibar on a flight which was so early that I cleared customs in Mombasa before we were due to leave the ground in Zanzibar.  The international airport in Zanzibar is a modest affair with only half a dozen flights leaving on the day I was there.  I suspect that the pilots of my aircraft figured they were there, the passengers were there, the runway was clear so why not go early?  In contrast to my lengthy experience at Nairobi I cleared customs in Mombasa in about five minutes (being one of about three non nationals on a flight that only held twenty probably helped).  I was so early that I was actually sitting around outside waiting for the taxi sent by my airbnb host to arrive.  I amused myself by looking hopefully at the eager taxi touts hanging around and then shaking my head when they approached.

Once the driver had got over his shock at finding me waiting for him he took me out to the northern beaches of Mombasa where I would be staying for the night.  My host was an Austrian lady who had lived in Kenya for the last two decades eventually winding up living in what used to be the servant quarters for a large beachside house.  Vervet monkeys frolicked in trees as I approached but the little bastards vanished when I returned with a camera.  Instead I took a lot of photos of a cat and its kitten that didn't quite belong to my host but hung around on the (accurate) assumption that if they did so she would feed them occasionally.

To feed me I wandered down to a nearby German bar for dinner.  There were Bundesliga results on the wall and a whole bunch of German (or at least German adjacent) flags hanging from the rafters.  I spotted the flag of Switzerland and the ducal standard of Luxembourg among other more genuinely German banners.  German beers were available but in deference to my host country I ordered a Tusker instead.  The prostitutes were definitely Kenyan, one of them even approached me until she realised she would do better with one of the doughy businessmen from a nearby resort.  I ordered Hungarian goulash, I'm not sure if it was Hungarian or even goulash but it was delicious.

The next morning, deciding I didn't want prostitutes before breakfast, I wandered along to an Ethiopian restaurant.  The young lady there was Kenyan, very attractive and did a good job of pretending to be friendly but all she wanted to sell me was food.  I had an English breakfast which was actually very good.

Downtown in Mombasa is Fort Jesus.  This was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century when they still had pretensions to a world empire to defend their recently acquired holdings in the Mombasa region.  It had mighty cannon covering the sea approach capable of sinking any ship which ventured near.  Which is probably why the Omani Arabs landed a little further up the coast and besieged the fort from the landward side.  A later revolt kicked the Omanis out and invited the Portuguese back in but the Omanis eventually took the fort back again.  Ultimately it wound up in British control who used it as a prison possibly on the theory that it might be better at keeping people in than it had proved to be in keeping them out.

Travelling Hopefully - Getting Lost in Stone Town

Zanzibar City is the largest city on the island but I spent all of my time in one small part of it.  Specifically I stayed in Stone Town which is the city's requisite "old town".  Every city several centuries old has one of these and its difficult to tell whether it was a farsighted eye for the future tourist dollar or a simple lack of civic planning which permitted so many of them to survive.  Stone Town is roughly triangular in shape, bordered on two sides by sea and on the third by Creek Road beyond which is the rest of the city.

Anyone who is familiar with Indiana Jones movies or the sort of sword and sorcery Conan ripoffs will immediately recognise Stone Town.  If, like me, you spent a certain amount of your formative years playing Dungeons and Dragons then Stone Town will likewise be familiar.  It is a maze of narrow alleys, and multistory buildings all jumbled together in a confusing mass.  Small, dark rooms open directly onto the streets which are rarely more than three feet wide.  It is also probably the coolest part of the island as the sun can't really penetrate the buildings very much and the underlying humidity won't make itself felt unless you exert yourself by doing something strenuous like walking or breathing.

Naturally most of the little shops (and they were little, even the biggest) cater to tourists but there are also photocopying places, local markets, cyber cafes, mosques and schools plus one or two places selling whitegoods despite the fact that you couldn't fit more than two or three items into each shop.  People lived in the street, a fact that you noticed more at night when you would expect at least the children to be inside.

I fell mildly in love with Stone Town.  I loved the maze of narrow crooked streets and the jumble of buildings all on top of each other.  The people seemed friendly, or at least alive enough to the importance of tourism to appear friendly but what really got me was the cats.  There are a lot of cats in Stone Town.  All of them are thin but none seem to be starving and none gave any indication of ill treatment or neglect.  I passed by a mosque during evening prayers and there were a dozen cats lolling about outside in calm expectation.  It was obvious that once the Word of God was attended to the more important Feeding of Cats would take place.

Getting lost in Stone Town is childishly easy.  Over the course of three days or so I got lost so many times an argument could be made for saying I never knew where I was.  However if you have a map with the major landmarks it is impossible to stay lost for very long as Stone Town is so small that walking a couple of hundred metres in any direction will bring you to one of these landmarks and let you reorient yourself, briefly.  Then you can take a step forward and be lost again.

I stayed in a house in Stone Town which it took me fifteen minutes to find despite the fact that I was never more than a hundred metres from it.  A cool airy room on the second floor with views overlooking, well, overlooking the windows of the house across the street which you could almost reach out and touch.  It was an ideal location from which to journey out across the town.

Down by the sea are some more substantial buildings including the fancy hotels, the House of Wonders and the Old Arab Fort.  The Old Arab Fort is an old Arab fort, hence the name.  The House of Wonders is the former palace of the Sultans of Zanzibar, the title comes from the fact that when it was built it was the first house on the island to have running water, electricity and a lift.  It is now a museum or rather it was a museum until a bit of it collapsed a few years ago.  Funds were allocated for its repair but according to my guide the money has mysteriously vanished.  For Queen fans you can also see the house where Freddie Mercury spent not very much of his life.

Travelling Hopefully - A Brief Chelonian Interlude

Lest you think that my time at the beach resort was a non stop idyll of sunbaking, drinking inaccurately named cocktails and bitching about the service I would like to point out that I also took the opportunity to pester sea creatures.

There were two options for this, one could either go snorkeling or one could visit a turtle sanctuary.  I decided on the turtles which turned out to be a good choice as the snorkelers apparently had to face serried ranks of jellyfish outraged at the invasion of their domain.  I went swimming with turtles which involved a visit to a modest sized lagoon with subterranean access to the sea which kept the water clean and salty.  This was ideal for sea turtles which was good as they had little input into their presence.

Officially the place was a sort of sea turtle hospital.  It's illegal to kill them but naturally they get caught in fishing nets and when this happens the fishermen bring them to this place who pays them for the turtles and then nurses the turtles back to health before releasing them back into the ocean.

That, as I say, is the official story.  I have to admit that the turtles we saw all looked pretty damned robust and of course the centre gets its money to buy turtles from fishermen by charging tourists to come and swim with them.  We were told that healthy batches of turtles are released into the sea twice a year.  There appeared to be no figures for how many might have crawled (very slowly) under the wire.

Humans are not really designed to move in three dimensions.  Back and forward and side to side are relatively easy but up and down is not something we are good at (unless we're Masai).  The preceding couple of sentences are intended to explain my sudden shock at swimming in the lagoon and finding myself surrounded, in a three dimensional sense, by turtles.  Some of them really quite large.  What made it even odder (although somewhat reassuring) was the total lack of interest the turtles had in me.  They swam over me, under me, around me and on occasion into me with batting an eyelid.  Possibly this is because turtles don't have eyelids, I must check that out.

We were assured that the turtles only ate seaweed and not, for example, interfering tourists.  Large clumps of the seaweed in question were tossed into the lagoon to create a sort of armour plated vegan feeding frenzy.  One or two of us did get minor nips.  Apparently we looked a little too much like seaweed.

PS, I've just checked google.  Apparently sea turtles do have eyelids.

Travelling Hopefully - Sun, Sand and Terrible Service

Kendwa is at the northern end of the island that even the locals have stopped pretending is called anything except Zanzibar.  We stopped at a resort there for a couple of days.  This was the end of our tour, hereafter I would be on my own.  I won't give the name of the resort but it had large, airconditioned rooms, a breathtakingly beautiful beach and a staff who were friendly, charming and useless.

I hope that the staff have been recruited from the local population as part of an effort to pump some money into the economy.  If they were actually recruited from elsewhere then the managers of the resort might as well hire locals and save a bit of money.  This issue was not poor service along the lines of rudeness, as I say the staff were friendly and charming.  Unfortunately it would appear they were at best half trained and the slightest problem left them unable to cope.  I went without a cappuccino for several hours because they couldn't find any milk.  I ordered a screwdriver at the bar to be told they couldn't make it despite the fact it was on their drinks list and the ingredients (vodka and orange juice) were actually sitting there in front of me.  Meals were good but would arrive at random times with some people on their desserts before others had received their appetisers.  One guy received his meal an hour after I did despite ordering the same thing at the same time.

The silly thing is that the presence of a single, trained floor manager would have solved most of the issues.  You can run a resort with half trained staff and goodwill (which was abundant) if you have just one person who knows what to do and can guide the staff when required.  As it was it was obvious that these guys had been given a half baked (at best) hospitality course and then left to sink or swim.  They sank.

But I quibble, nobody starved or died (although I did get a mild electric shock from the toaster) and cocktails arrived eventually even if they didn't have the ingredients one might expect or bear much resemblance to what was actually ordered.  The beach was perfect, the ocean more so and a sunset cruise on a dhow was a perfect way to smooth over any minor bumps in the hospitality.

Travelling Hopefully - A Spice Farm and Unexpected Customs

The mighty Kilimanjaro IV rocked easily at anchor and disgorged its human cargo onto the wharf at Zanzibar which seemed less than impressed at being so honoured.  Burdened by my worldly goods (or such of them as I had brought with me) I struggled up the ramp to passport control.  Once my passport was stamped I went along to customs to have my bags checked and then passed on to a stern, unsmiling man who patted me down and demanded to see the stamp his colleague sitting ten metres away had put in my passport a mere five minutes ago.  Which actually caused a problem as he hadn't done a very good job of it and it took the combined efforts of myself and my searcher to find it.  Eventually he decided I was unlikely to be either an illegal immigrant or an international drug smuggler and reluctantly let me through.

"Wait a minute!" I hear you cry.  "Customs?  Passport Control?  Surely Zanzibar is part of Tanzania?"  Well yes it is in much the same way as Scotland is part of the same country as England.  Tanzania is an archipelago off the coast of the African mainland.  The mainland part of the country is called Tanganyika.  Tanzania is actually an acronym which stands for TANganyika-ZANzibar Independent Association.  Zanzibar is semi-autonomous.  Exactly how semi depends on who you ask but they have their own president, their own flag and, most tellingly of all, their own football team.  It is fair to say that the marriage between the two entities has not been without its little tensions.

Once through customs we headed to our hotel where we dropped our bags and went off to visit a spice farm, as you do.  Spices are a major export for Zanzibar particularly now that their other principal export, slaves, is somewhat politically incorrect.  We were driven out of Zanzibar City into the countryside which was the usual messy collection of trees, bushes and weeds scattered about the place with no particular sense of order.  We stopped in the middle of this and were informed we were in a spice farm.

It didn't look like a farm to me.  I have a very definite idea of what a farm looks like and it involves orderly rows of vegetables presenting themselves for inspection with some lean, elderly person commenting on how dreadful things had been lately and he didn't know how they were going to survive.  I asked our guide about this but apparently Zanzibarians are currently getting pretty good prices for their product and certainly good enough to make the hapless coffee producers of the mainland grind their teeth in envy.

The farm was a profusion of trees and bushes grown apparently (but not actually) at random.  Our guide wandered through them leaping onto one innocent looking plant after another and proclaiming them to be cardamon or turmeric or pepper or vanilla or now forgotten others as the case may be.  On a slightly relevant sidebar, vanilla icecream on Zanzibar is absolute heaven.  After the tour we were fed sames of various spiced teas, the ginger tea was surprisingly good, and were then feasted on octopus which the farm apparently doesn't grow.  We were also, of course, given the opportunity to buy spices.  I picked up a bunch for my Mother which I'm hoping make it through customs.

Travelling Hopefully - The Soggy Road to Zanzibar

At obscene o'clock the next morning with the night stars still glittering in an inky sky we set off on the road to Zanzibar.  Actually we set off on the road to a ferry terminal as Zanzibar is somewhat inconveniently located on an island.  We weren't actually going to the ferry terminal that would take us to Zanzibar.  We were going to the ferry terminal that would take us to the ferry terminal that would take us to Zanzibar.  Taking a ferry there would alleviate the necessity of having to drive to the ferry terminal.  This was good as to get there on time by vehicle we would have to have started a week ago.

Despite the earliness of the hour the streets were packed with traffic although some of it may have been yesterdays commuters still making their way home.  Prominent among the traffic was a wacking great army truck which had absolute right of way based on the fact that it was painted green and outweighed everything else on the road by several tonnes.  Traffic scattered, or attempted to scatter, before it which didn't stop it from sideswiping a tuktuk possibly the most one sided vehicle on vehicle collision in history.

All of this traffic plus a mass of pedestrians was heading for the ferry wharf.  Our group joined the throng, a modern day exodus with a battered vehicle ferry as the somewhat improbable promised land.  Along the way I managed to annoy another of the ladies of Dar es Salaam.  She was leaning against a railing near the ferry as the lemming like tide surged past her but when I did the same outraged shouts followed me.  Apparently she was checking tickets.  I waved mine over my shoulder and kept moving, attempting to go against the flow would have resulted in my horrible death by crushing.

We hopped off the ferry and trotted through a couple of city streets until we reached the proper ferry wharf with the big ocean going ferries that would take us to Zanzibar.  Our excellent tour leader had managed to get us all an upgrade to business class on the large and comfortably appointed (at least in business class) ferry to Zanzibar.

The name of the ferry was Kilimanjaro IV.  Every second thing in Tanzania is named Kilimanjaro including the beer (their marketing slogan "Kilimanjaro; if you can't climb it, drink it").  The journey to Zanzibar takes about ninety minutes.  If disaster does strike it would be convenient if it happened more than thirty minutes into the trip as it takes that long to complete the safety briefing (first in Kiswahili, then English).  We were assured that the crew were highly trained professionals and that our safety was their primary concern and that they would not at all focus on using our water bloated bodies as flotation devices should things go horribly wrong.  Perhaps fortunately this dedication wasn't put to the ultimate test.

Travelling Hopefully - Manic Street Vendors and a Mall

We woke early for the long haul from the cool, wet mountains to the hot damp lowlands of Dar es Salaam.  The journey promised to be long particularly as we had been promised a mall.  It was truly sad how much excitement this promoted in our supposedly intrepid band of Africa trekkers.  A little startled at the reaction he had provoked Elisha, our tour leader, hastened to repair the damage by limited the amount of time we could spend there to half an hour.  It was too late, the damage was done.  The trip was immediately divided into pre and post mall components and the sense of anticipation as we left the hotel neared lions on the Serengeti levels.

It would be unfair to describe the mall as a disappointment.  It had everything one might expect of a mall in Australia except air conditioning and bad piped in music.  I just don't particularly like malls.  I and a couple of guys lingered in a coffee shop while the remainder of the tour group roamed the mall in packs striking terror into the hearts of what were probably some of the wealthiest people in Tanzania.  The mall even had a KFC which in deference to my voyage of cultural discovery I proudly ignored.  This noble stance lasted until I discovered that our Irish honeymoon couple had succumbed and were now happily munching on chicken.  I looked so pathetic that they offered me a piece.  I almost screamed in ecstasy as it hit my tongue.

The capital city of Tanzania is Dodona.  However most of the functions of government still take place in Dar es Salaam.  This is because upon being informed that they were being transferred to a dusty caravan city in the centre of the country the entire civil service dug their heels in and refused to move.  The president has managed to drag the politicians to Dodona for legislative sessions but the bureaucracy is made of sterner stuff.

We hit Dar es Salaam in the early afternoon.  Dar es Salaam hit us back, several times.  Then it kicked us, and walked away before running back and kicking us again.  We struggled gasping through the traffic for several hours breathing an atmosphere comprising equal parts lead, carbon monoxide and dust.  We weren't actually going very far which was convenient as going very far was impossible.  It took several hours to go not very far at all.  Along the sides of the roads an endless parade of street vendors hawked their wares.  They weren't hawking them at us in particular, they were hawking in a more general and all encompassing sense.

One stall had chickens crawling all over it which I thought was worth a photo.  In taking it I almost created a breach in Australian-Tanzanian relations when a lady at the next stall thought I was taking a photo of her.  She didn't get mad but she caught my eye and made firm ticking off motions through the truck window.  We fled as quickly as we could which given the conditions of Dar es Salaam traffic meant about four kilometres an hour.

We lurched, stopped, started, crawled a few metres and stopped again in the process probably burning more fuel than on the entire trip down from the mountains but eventually we arrived at our destination.  The destination made up for a lot.  It made up for the entire trip through Dar es Salaam and left change.  A magnificent white powdered beach fronting an Indian Ocean of such translucent beauty that not even the presence of a large cargo ship in the middle of it could spoil the view.  One glance was enough to explain the civil service's reluctance to leave the city. 

We "camped" in the grounds of another hotel.  The use of inverted commas should alert you to the fact that the preceding sentence was a lie.  We had done with camping and with the exception of one hardy soul we all upgraded to accommodation with a roof.  I stayed in a one room beach bungalow so close to the ocean I could hear the waves as I drifted off to sleep.

Dar es Salaam was also where we said goodbye to David and Wilson, our driver and cook respectively.  For the record the driving and the cooking were excellent as was the patience of both men with the pack of pampered first worlders they had been saddled with for their sins.

Travelling Hopefully - An Early Hotel and a Rain Delay

We ploughed through the Usambara Mountains until we reached Lushoto where we were due to camp in the grounds of the Lawns Hotel touted in our trip notes as being one of the earliest in Africa.  I'm pretty sure "earliest" was a euphemism for "oldest".  Our love of camping was so great by this stage that when offered the opportunity to upgrade to rooms every one of us drew themselves up proudly and shrieked "Yes yes, oh god yes!"

My room was dark, cavernous and had a door so warped that it required an effort to open, close and particularly, lock.  Nevertheless it had a bed (oh bliss), hottish water and circumstances proved it was totally waterproof.  Those circumstances were rain.  Quite a lot of rain actually.  It started after midnight (which was when they turfed us out of the bar) and kept going until well into the morning.  This put a bit of a crimp in our plans for the day which were supposed to include a bushwalk to a local sightseeing spot and visiting the village.  None of us were crazy about doing that in the pouring rain and some of us (me) were not crazy about walking on uneven, mud slicked paths even if the rain stopped.

The rain stopped at about midday and those that were keen went off on a truncated version of the days programme while I and one or two others lounged around the hotel and looked out at the grey and damp scenery.  I actually think forests look better like this so I was quite happy.  Something else contributing to my happiness was the fact that I was dry, warm and mudfree while I was enjoying the scenery.

The others returned with happy tales of sightseeing and village visiting and I tried to pretend I had missed out on something but I snuggled a little deeper into my chair while doing so so I don't think I convinced anyone.

Travelling Hopefully - Waving at Children From Trucks

Our movement around Kenya and Tanzania was facilitated by our truck.  This was a superb pairing of German vehicle technology and East African driving skill.  The latter being provided by our driver David who managed to manoeuvre seven tonnes of Mercedes truck (plus luggage) into places most people would have difficulty parking a small hatchback.

Our travels from place to place gave us the opportunity to look at the scenery and wave to children.  So many children, so much waving.  If we had done this in Australia we would certainly have attracted the attention of the authorities.  The entire Madonna/Angelina Jolie vibe wasn't helped by the ecstatic cooing of the more female members of our group (no, I was not one of them) who apparently wanted to take them all home.

On a note which is both more serious and completely ridiculous there is actually a travel warning telling us not to wave at children for fear their parents will think we want to kidnap them.  Let's get something straight.  The Tanzanians are poor, they're not freaking idiots.  Besides, quite a few completely grown up Tanzanians waved to us as well.

You can't really get away from children.  With the exception of the national parks pretty much everywhere in Tanzania is somebodies village, farm or grazing area.  This means that if you stop by the side of the road in an apparently desolate region it will be less than five minutes before some kids herding the local livestock turn up to find out what you're doing.  Sometimes they will be accompanied by goats or cows but normally the livestock lurks modestly out of shot waiting for their guardians to return from the show.  If we have contributed absolutely nothing else to Africa (and a strong argument can be made to say we haven't) we have at least provided their children with some free entertainment.

Travelling Hopefully - Hot Showers and Political Announcements on a Mountainside

Leaving the Serengeti behind us our next destination was the slopes of Kilimanjaro, or at least, slopes adjacent to the slopes of Kilimanjaro.  Our journey to the lumpier parts of Tanzania involved a dramatic change of scenery from dust, grasslands and acacia trees to hills, lush trees and generally greenness.  Plus a fair amount of water.  With fertile soil and decent rainfall this should be one of the more affluent parts of Tanzania but apparently the bottom has fallen out of the coffee market recently (god knows I'm doing my bit).  A guide mentioned that farmers were only getting US$2 a kilogramme at the moment rather than the more typical five.  At two dollars a kilogram not even Tanzanian farmers can make a go of coffee production and a lot of farmers are cutting back their coffee crops for more subsistence products.

We climbed (or rather the vehicle climbed, we just sat around) up narrow "roads" through a straggling mountain village/farming area/scene of natural beauty until we reached our campsite where we were welcomed by a friendly goat.  There was also a cow but we were informed that it wasn't so friendly.  Apparently tourists used to be able to milk it but lately the cow had put its hoof down in no uncertain terms.  I suspect it had been inexpertly milked once too often and the sight of a white face approaching made it tremble for its udders.

Still the camp was great and stood out for one particular reason.  There on a mountainside in Tanzania in close proximity to a friendly goat and a surly cow I had the first hot shower since I arrived in Africa.  Oh yes and the scenery was beautiful, nature walk, local guides blah blah blah.  The point is I had a hot shower!!

The next day we wandered upwards in the hopes of gaining sight (and possibly photographs) of Africa's highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro.  We were warned that mist might spoil the party but as it turned we got great shots (or, if you're me, mediocre shots) of Kilimanjaro still with its crown of snow despite its proximity to the equator.

On the way back politics intervened.  Loudly.  A four wheel drive emblazoned with party colours and generously equipped with loudspeakers bounced along the track.  Sitting in the back was the hopeful candidate bellowing his political slogans and party platform to everyone within a couple of kilometres radius.  At least I assume that's what he was bellowing.  He could have been informing them about his unhappy love affair for all I know.  "Vote for me, my wife just left me for a dentist".  I can't say that he was surrounded by eager, politically astute Tanzanians.  It was Sunday and they were all in church.  Those of us in the area who were unregenerate heathens retired to a coffee shop before getting back on the truck.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Travelling Hopefully - An Immense Amount of Hot Air

On our first full day in the Serengeti I and some like minded associates got up at lion maul o'clock to go for a dawn balloon ride.  Waking up that early meant that we were wandering around the camp in the pitch darkness when apparently animals had a habit of doing the same thing.  Despite this we made it to the jeep (actually a Toyota landcruiser) unsavaged and headed off to the balloon launch site. 

The launch site was a broad plain, as I have mentioned much of the Serengeti is actually a broad plain but this bit was special because it had balloons on it.  The balloons were flat, laid out across the plain attached to rather large baskets.  After a safety briefing (don't fall out featured prominently among the advice) we crawled into the baskets and sat/lay uncomfortably looking at the sky while an immense amount of hot air was blasted into the balloon behind us.  We the hot air reached such proportions that I thought the balloon should enter politics it rose gently into the air tugging the basket gently below it.

There may be a more civilised way of travelling through the air but I can't think of it.  Floating just above treetop height we looked down on the Serengeti from above and were amazed.  The place is full of holes.  Apparently aardvarks dig the holes in a disturbingly monomaniacal search for termites and then leave them for others to occupy.  Looking down we saw the tops of a lot of gazelles and in the distance a rather tense stand off between a pair of hippos and a pride of lions.  We left before there was a resolution to that encounter.

Also we saw a hyena at full pace, putting an end to any suggestions they might be shambling clowns.  It was hunting and going in hard on a gazelle but then our shadow fell across it and it got utterly confused, dashing back and forth.  The gazelle lived for another day (or at least another five minutes, there was more than one hyena out there and it is they, not the lions who are top predator) and the hyena retreated to write a letter of complaint to its member of parliament.

Unconcerned by the hunger stricken hyena below us we drifted on to our landing site where an open air breakfast had been set up complete with champagne.  Presumably this part of the Serengeti had been cleared of lions and hyenas nursing a grudge.  We returned to our camp just in time to see it overrun by a horde of mongooses (mongeese?).  As the non ballooners amongst us returned we regaled them with our stories but since they had actually seen a lion make a kill we decided the honours were about even.

Travelling Hopefully - Big Animals and an Unexpected Shampoo Incident

We spent a happy morning trundling around the Ngorongoro crater pestering animals.  There were gazelles, zebras, hippos and more wildebeest than you could shake a stick at but this was a pale shadow of what awaited us in the Serengeti.  The road to the Serengeti is dirt covered with rocks.  This makes for remarkably good going as long as you don't mind your teeth being shaken out of your head every inch of the way.  Once there we set off around the various tracks looking for animals.

There are some stone outcrops and patches of water in the Serengeti but most of the area is largely featureless grassland dotted with acacia trees, or at least the bit we were staying at was.  Wildebeest and zebras tended to stand out but I couldn't imagine larger predator animals successfully hiding themselves there.  Which turned out to be the one of the stupidest things I've ever thought as the Serengeti turned out to be hip deep in larger predator animals.  Lions of course, pulling faces and doing everything except handing out 5 by 8 glossies but also hyenas, serval cats, jackals and leopards.  I didn't really expect to see leopards, knowing them to be both rare and retiring but we saw one on the first day.  Either that or we saw a rolled up leopard skin rug somebody had left up in a tree.

Unlike the lions the hyenas refused to pause for photos but I got a couple of good shots.  I also got some good photos of the leopard/rolled up rug.  In fact the only thing we would not see on our brief stay in the Serengeti was a rhino.  We had seen a couple in Ngorongoro but at such a distance that they might actually have been deformed buffaloes.  Oh yes, we saw buffaloes too, and warthogs, a crocodile plus a few giraffes and ostriches.

After a hot and dusty day pestering endangered species we pulled into our camp to move our belongings into our tents.  This was where I discovered that my shampoo had burst in my pack and that many of my belongings were covered in sweet smelling gunk.  After such an amazing day this minor inconvenience irritated me beyond all rational levels and I was cursing and mopping gunk off my clothes with toilet paper when I became aware that someone was trying to attract my attention.  I responded with a less than coherent account of my shampoo woes.  I don't know what the person said in return but the word "elephant" did appear.  I looked up and there was a rather large elephant raiding our garbage bin.  Everybody else had rather sensibly retreated to the building where our meals were to be produced and we rather gingerly did the same.

Game drives the next day added to our "bag" including an amazing scene of a mother cheetah with three half grown cubs lolling around like house cats.  I didn't have my camera on me for that one much to my dismay but I did manage to get some excellent (although rather graphic) shots of lions tearing a zebra apart the next day.  We were visited by another elephant (or possibly the same one back for more) who raided our other garbage bin and according to others hyenas, giraffes and possibly a lion wandered through our camp in the dead of night.  I say others because I was asleep when all this happened.  According to the people in the tent next to me I snored so maybe the animals gave me a wide berth.

I've made it sound as though the animals simply stepped forward and paraded themselves for us but with the exception of the largest herbivores we probably wouldn't have seen anything without the keen eyes and experience of our safari drivers who time and again would stop next to an innocent patch of grass and encourage us to watch until something impressive stuck its head up.  According to Elysha we were lucky with our spotting but even so the skill of the drivers was almost superhuman.

Travelling Hopefully - Lions on Roads, Under Trees and in Zebras

Lions!  I saw lions!  Everybody else saw them too of course but they don't have blogs so I'm claiming them.

Our first encounter with lions was in the Ngorongoro crater and fulfilled every expectation I had of lion sightings.  ie they were a fair distance away and well camouflaged against the grassland which made it difficult to see them at all.  But that was just a teaser.  It turns out lions are dreadful hams and over the next few days the problem would not be photographing lions but shoving the things out of the view screen long enough to get a few other animal shots.

The first rather spectacular example of this came shortly after the disappointing initial encounter with lions.  As we drove around Ngorongoro we noticed a huge cluster of jeeps so we went up to take a look.  A pair of lions had decided to doze on the road and the jeeps were simultaneously jockeying for photography positions and trying to avoid the lions.  This became a little more difficult for one jeep when a lion promptly flopped down under the vehicle and went to sleep.  The jeep could literally not move without running the thing over (frowned on in Ngorongoro which is after all a nature park).  The occupants of the jeep in question alternated between taking photos and wondering if they were going to be stuck there all night.  Eventually another jeep nudged up until it was about a metre away from the offending lion and revved the engine ferociously.  The lion slowly got up and moved about a metre and a half to the left providing the captive jeep with just enough space to get free.

Inside the Serengeti there seemed to be lions everywhere.  They sprawled under trees and padded menacingly around and generally put Big Cats Diary to shame.  On our last day there we were treated to the sight of a pair of lions conducting an impromptu autopsy on a zebra so freshly dead that the vultures hadn't had time to arrive (most likely cause of death? lions).

The very last shot of a lion we got was a heavily maned specimen pacing slowly along and followed, at a respectful distance by three gazelles.  That last bit sounds a little odd but I suspect that once you have the enemy in your sights its a very good idea to keep him there.

Travelling Hopefully - Mosquitos and Banana Beer

On our second day of safari we had an uplifting cultural experience.  Which is to say we wandered down to a nearby village and stared at the locals going about their business, or at least as much of their business as they were prepared to conduct in front of strangers.

I must admit I've always felt a little uneasy about this sort of "cultural tourism".  I can't help thinking of my likely reaction if a bunch of foreigners (or for that matter, neighbours) started wandering around my place taking pictures and goggling about how uplifting and cultural the whole thing was.  As a rule culture is something only noticed by outsiders.  For the locals its just the way things get done.

Having said that it was informative and helped correct an impression I had gained from travelling down the main road.  This village (and no doubt the others) presented a face to the highway of wretched, cobbled together shopfronts that seemed to exist in the vain hope that a tourist bus would stop and people would buy bottles of coke.  Behind this the village stretched for quite a way with houses, small businesses and farms all mixed in together and with people generally getting on with their lives despite the propensity of western tourists to come clumping through.

The village we visited was called Mto Wa Mbo which translates as "place of mosquitos" which doesn't sound like a recommendation until you realise that it also implies a permanent water supply.  Compared with the arid territory we had come through to get here the area was quite lush and at least part of the two main crops (rice and bananas) were grown in sufficient quantities to support a modest export trade after subsistence needs were catered to.  I actually thought this might be quite an affluent area but according to Elysha our tour leader I was reading too much into some readily available water and a few excess grains of rice.

If you have been on any sort of cultural tour you will know that there are two ingredients which never vary.  You will get to see the local whatever it is that the locals make (with of course the opportunity to buy some) and you will get to sample the local delicacy.  In this case the local craftwork was breathtaking wooden carvings (although the locals had come all the way from Mozambique) and the local delicacy was banana beer.  We were told how banana beer is made and despite that were offered the opportunity to try some.  We all tried it and nobody seemed to like it that much.  I didn't mind it myself, it tasted a little like rice wine and was no whit worse than any other beer I have tried.

After our uplifting cultural experience we rolled on to our next camp site.  It had a swimming pool!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Travelling Hopefully

I have a floppy hat, an insect repellant shirt and dark sunglasses.  Some people look good in this sort of gear, I'm one of those who don't.  As for the insect repellent shirt it must be working because every time I put it on my eyes start watering .

Thus prepared I joined fourteen other eager people to meet our guides for a trip through the African hinterland.  Nairobi seemed quite hinter to me but apparently we would be travelling to places that would hinter the buggery out of Nairobi.

With shouts of good cheer and easy going death threats we loaded up our truck (our guide Elissa assured us it was a truck not a bus despite its definite people carrying ability) and rolled out into the streets of Nairobi.  An hour later we were still in the streets of Nairobi albeit different ones.  Eventually we left the city behind in a flurry of cement plants that served notice that if we slowed down the city might catch up with us.

The countryside bore a remarkable resemblance to outback Australia only redder and with less roadkill.  Donning our sunglasses and squealing with excitement everytime we saw a cow we thundered down the highway on the way to Tanzania.  Kenya (and as it turned out, Tanzania) very sensibly place speed humps on their highways on the approach to each village.  This forces speed crazed drivers to slow down as they reach concentrations of human beings.  This gave me the opportunity to spot a minivan full of goats, all the seats being carefully tied to the roof.  There were more goats being herded in the traditional method with prompted more excited squeals.  The reception garnered by the first donkeys we saw had to be heard to be believed.

The border crossing was the expected seething mess of vehicles, dust covered tourists and hawkers taking advantage of a captive market.  Fortunately I'm an old hand at this sort of thing and escaped with only a copper bracelet and a photo which collectively cost me a thousand shillings.  My less experienced comrades got away with nothing at all.  Finally, after finger printing and assuring the officials we didn't have yellow fever we trooped through into Tanzania and repeated the entire process twenty metres down the road.  Then at last we could reboard our truck and continue our journey.

My first impression of Tanzania was that it strongly resembled Kenya and with an air of "been there, done" that we settled back into our seats.  Then the giraffe happened.  The truck slammed to a halt which would envy a fighter on an aircraft carrier deck and our united little group turned into a snarling mob as we crawled over each other attempting to take the best photos.  Photography urge temporarily sated we continued our journey down Tanzania's highway system watching indifferently as we passed goats, cows, donkeys, zebras and more cows.  Zebras!!!  Once again we lurched to a stop and we indulged in an orgy of photography of what are, let's face it. little more than overdressed horses.  Fortunately the photogenic animals petered out or we would never have reached our destination.

We stopped in Arusha, the largest city in this part of Tanzania where I handed over a modest amount of Kenyan shillings and received a wheelbarrow load of brightly coloured, nearly worthless paper in exchange.  The wholesale changing of money probably added about a tonne of weight to the trucks burden but nevertheless we trundled into our camping site where we were shown how to set up and bring down our tents.  Let's just say that some of us were better at that than others.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Travelling Hopefully - The Venom Laden Edition

Fascinated though I'm sure my adventures in postal were I am aware that I promised a visit to the Nairobi National Museum and a snake park.  Strangely I managed to achieve that as well.  I was assisted by the fact that they're both located in the same place.

I think that's pretty awesome.  Every museum should have a snake park.  That way the kids will have a reason to visit.  What better way to brighten up a bit of cultural mind improving than by having venom spitting reptiles hanging off the major exhibits?  Naturally the Nairobi National Museum doesn't have this either.  It simply shares grounds with the snake park but a mere 1600 shillings will get you access to both.  For another thousand you can hire the services of a guide who will take you through the museum, although not the snake park.  I must confess I'm not sure of my guide's official status.  I suspect he may have simply been a relative of the woman who sold me the ticket but he certainly knew his stuff.  Or at least he talked plausibly enough to convince someone sitting in a pool of total ignorance that he knew his stuff.

He guided me from room to room covering the ascent of Man (Kenya is after all where Man started ascending), the history of Kenya pre, during and post colonial. Plus rooms devoted to the animals and birds of Kenya.  They didn't have any reptiles, I suspect they didn't want to steal the snake park's thunder.  I saw (and photographed) the skeleton of Ahmed a monstrous sized elephant with monstrous sized tusks who during the poaching crisis of the 1980s was given a twenty four hour guard by the Kenyan president.  The poachers got him in the end (Ahmed, not the president) although they didn't get the tusks.  A poacher managed to shoot Ahmed in the back of the head, an injury which he at first shrugged off but would appear to have caused some kind of stroke as one side of his face was paralysed.  This forced Ahmed to chew on only one side of his mouth wearing down his teeth more quickly until eventually he died due to a lack of teeth to chew his food with.

The Kenyan history part was certainly interesting.  There was a bit on the Mau-Mau uprising which prompted thought.  I have heard of the Mau-Mau, largely from a horrible murders and the British crushing it perspective.  Now here it was taking a prominent and lauded place in Kenya's story of independence and rise to nationhood.  Intellectually I was aware of this but this was the first time I had stared it in the face.  It's amazing what will happen when people get the opportunity to write their own history.

The last and weakest exhibit was a photo gallery showing Chinese-Kenyan friendship which I suspect the Chinese paid for and thus the Kenyans felt obliged to display.  It consisted largely of besuited Kenyans and Chinese shaking hands in front of things.  My guide didn't bother mustering up the enthusiasm he'd exhibited in the previous rooms.  I got the impression that he wasn't entirely impressed with China's friendly generosity towards Kenya.  If nothing else the Kenyans have learned to spot a colonist at twenty paces.

And so to the snake park.  As snake parks go it was well populated with tortoises.  Obviously the park is trying to expand its range  Seriously, they were everywhere including sharing one compound with a whole bunch of snakes.  The sign on the enclosure said "Trespassers will be poisoned" presumably the tortoises are recognised as locals.  They had a couple of crocodiles as well, looking as dead as only a live crocodile can.

Around the central, tortoise heavy, enclosure there were loads of glass fronted alcoves containing snakes.  Each one had a helpful caption identifying the particular serpent in question, giving its range, temperament and risk scale.  There was one that was identified as "totally harmless but looks exactly like another one which is lethal".  The implied suggestion being that you be extremely sure of your identification before you pick it up.  My favourite was the Gaboon Viper, a rather plump and stubby snake which the caption noted was laid back, relaxed and easy going.  It would make an ideal pet for children or a gift for a favoured relative.  I may be paraphrasing a little.  It isn't until the last line that they mention that if you do succeed in pissing it off it will fucking kill you.

Travelling Hopefully - Going Postal

Today was the day!  If nothing else on this day I would purchase and mail postcards.  For that I would have to find both postcards and the post office.  Roaming the streets of Nairobi turned up a Christian bookshop across the road from the city council chambers.  Along with so many works on Jesus that one wonders why anybody bothered to write the bible I found some postcards.  I purchased the only ones that didn't have improving Christian messages on them and trotted off to the post office.

Belatedly using a little intelligence I had looked the post office up on the map and realised I had actually walked past it the previous day without recognition.  In my defence it is a wacking great complex of buildings, fenced off, surrounded by security guards and that black and yellow tape one normally sees at crime scenes.  It isn't until you have got past at least one checkpoint that you can see the modest sign informing you that this is in fact the post office and not the national mint or the local 7-11.  Having gained entry to what can only be called a compound I passed through a metal detector and headed for a likely looking building.  The helpful lady there directed me to another building.  The security guards at that building directed me back to the first building but on being informed that they had already been fingered agreed to direct me to the public entrance of their building which is where I needed to go.

At the public entrance I emptied my pockets, walked through another metal detector and answered some questions as to why I might wish to access the post office on this bright and sunny day.  The final security hurdle having been navigated I stepped into a cavernous, poorly lit room that was almost empty.  In fairness it was Saturday so presumably the post office was operating with a skeleton staff.  She was sitting behind a counter franking mail.  After about ten minutes or so she deigned to notice me and was eventually persuaded to sell me some stamps.  After a little more to and fro she passed over the airmail stickers as well.

Rarely have I felt such a sense of accomplishment after a visit to the post office.  The postcards have been entrusted to the tender mercies of Kenya's postal system and are no doubt winging their way to Australia as I write.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Travelling Hopefully

After nearly thirty hours of alternative between tedious air travel and tedious wandering around airports a Kenya Airways dreamliner deposited me at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in (or at least near) Nairobi.  By this time I was semi delirious and my answers to the friendly questions from the passport officer about the reason for my visit to Kenya were so disjointed and incoherent that I'm amazed I wasn't arrested on the spot.  Once through customs I stepped out into the surprisingly cool morning air and looked around for the car that the hotel had helpfully failed to send.

While I gazed at the absence of signs with my name on it with growing dismay the Kenyan army stepped in to help.  A soldier approached me and asked what the problem was.  At first I suspected that the passport officer had had second thoughts after all.  However once I got over being disturbingly close to an AK-47 (or whatever it was) he was a tower of helpfulness.  I sobbed out my story and, once it had been proved that my phone wasn't going to be helpful, he called the hotel on his phone.  After an awkward conversation in which I'm pretty sure that neither of us understood the other completely vague promises of a car were made.  I sat around and waited for a bit and then the soldier found me again to tell me that the hotel had called him to let me know that the car was on its way.  I don't know about their usual reputation but the Kenyan army gets a big thumbs up from me.

I rolled slowly into Nairobi and I do mean slowly.  It would not be unfair to say that Nairobi has a traffic problem and the various messing about at the airport meant that I was now struggling through peak hour traffic. Eventually by taking some back roads we arrived at the grounds of my hotel.

My hotel has grounds!  I don't think I've ever been in a hotel with grounds before.  They're small grounds but they are definitely grounds with nicely disciplined plants and a swimming pool.  The hotel itself hovers somewhere between charmingly dilapidated and just plain dilapidated.  The grounds however are lovely, the rooms are large and the staff friendly if not terribly knowledgeable.  In a desperate attempt to stave off sleep until nighttime I decided to deal with my postcard shopping needs and asked the lady at the reception desk if there was a small shop nearby where I could buy some.  She obviously didn't know what a postcard was and for small shop the best she could come up with was to point out that if I went out the gate and turned left then Nairobi was only a kilometre away.  So I walked into Nairobi.  I couldn't find any postcards there either although by this stage I was far from my best (which isn't all that great anyway) and it was probably my fault.  Tomorrow I'll hit a tourist site or two and hopefully they will be only to eager to trade coloured pieces of laminated cardboard for cash.

First impressions of Nairobi?  It definitely has its problems; every major building (including my hotel) is gated and has its own security force.  I have never before been scanned by a metal detector before being allowed to enter a supermarket.  On the other hand I wandered in my usual semi comatose way through the streets (admittedly the major ones) without attracting the attention of anything more dangerous than a couple of safari touts.  I did however make sure I was back at the hotel well before sundown.

Tomorrow, hopefully somewhat more alert, I am going to visit the National Museum and a snake park.  Surely there should be postcard opportunities in one of those places.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Travelling Hopefully - An Impromptu Weather Report

It's pissing down with rain.  Either that or the airport has sprung a leak.  Whole streams of water are sluicing down the outside of the building causing at least one person cooped up inside to wish he could step out onto a balcony.  Thunder is making so much noise that its almost overshadowing the noise of the bathroom cleaners who are apparently using controlled explosions to make their job easier or at least final.

There really isn't any point to this blog entry except for the fact that in my aimless wanderings around Bangkok Airport I have once again passed a free internet station.  Also, as I may have mentioned, its raining, heavily.

I know that Thailand is tropical and therefore gets a very generous water from the sky allocation but I'm feeling slightly disoriented.  Teeming rain and crashing thunder always puts me in mind of central European locations with mountains, ruined castles and Peter Cushing.  When I encounter weather like this I always look around to see if some maniac is stitching bits of corpse together in a basement somewhere.

Airports must be some of the most depressing locations on the planet.  They are staffed by literally thousands of people who spend their days attending to the needs of people who can afford air travel.  The passengers themselves are either on the way to holidays or on the way home.  In either case their affection for a poorly lit above ground bunker is likely to be low.  Nobody buys postcards of airports.  Although if there was a stall I might.

It is fair to say that airports are occupied by people who are desperate to get out of them to somewhere nicer and those suffering souls for whom working at an airport is the closest they are likely to get to international travel themselves.  Resentment, impatience and sheer frustration are as much a part of the construction as reinforced concrete.

Strangely I don't feel resentful, impatient or frustrated in airports but the absence of these negative emotions produces absolutely nothing positive to replace them.  It is always dusk at an airport, large numbers of people you don't know and don't care about (at least I don't, possibly I'm an unworthy person) mill about, meander to and fro and stand right in front of the indicator boards when you're trying to find your flight.  Meanwhile hordes of smartly uniformed people with bright smiles and eyes begging for death do their best to do as little for you as possible.  If bland was a weapon then airports would be serial killers.

Many more blog posts like this and people will be saying the same about me.

Travelling Hopefully - A Sleep Deprived Airport Prelude

I like getting to the airport early.  It gives me time to sit down, relax and panic about whatever it is I have inevitably forgotten without actually having enough time to go back and get it.  Besides Sydney Airport is a great place to spend some time.  It really gives you a greater appreciation of virtually anywhere else.

In this case "anywhere else" was a 747 owned (or more likely leased) by Thai Airways.  It was taking mere to Bangkok where, after a mere nine hours of waiting, I would board another flight to take me to Nairobi.  Always assuming somebody at Bangkok could give me the boarding pass that Sydney was unable to produce.

I got a window seat which pleased me as the only part of any flight that is other than utterly tedious is the takeoff.  I pressed my face to the window and tried to focus on the maplike display of Sydney and its suburbs and not at all on the fact that one of the engine mounts seemed to be shaking a little more than I was keen on.

Once properly airborne there was little to do except watch The Big Bang Theory.  This is a show I watch in multi series clumps whenever I do some overseas travel.  Air travel is great for letting you do those things you normally wouldn't waste your time on, as long as you can do them on an aeroplane.

Suvarnabhumi Airport has one major advantage over Sydney in that its not Sydney.  Aside from that its the usual collection of not particularly well lit corridors, gaudy duty free shops and incomprehensible announcements.  I had nine hours to kill which should make this the longest death scene since Hamlet.

So, what to do with all that time.  You might think I would take a nap or read a book both of which would be perfectly acceptable ways to while away the time.  Sadly I can't.  Possibly its the impermanent nature of both my presence and everybody elses at an airport but i simply can't settle down.  I take to roaming the corridors like a dishevelled and increasingly sleep deprived ghost.  Even this blog entry was written in thirty second clumps before my attention wandered off onto something else.  This could explain its disjointed nature and lack of anything interesting to say.

Or not.