A couple of us decided to spend a weekend at a “hotel” in Njabini, thinking that the electricity and hot water might make for a luxorious get away. It’s first important to clarify exactly what a hotel is in a rural Kenyan village. Actually, we could have done a lot worse for ourselves; it’s much nicer than I was expecting. The previous statement serves as an example of just how low my standards have dropped in the past month.
It resembles a motor lodge, in that the rooms all open onto a communal balcony hallway and look out over a central parking lot/courtyard. There are about 25-35 rooms on both sides of the courtyard, spanning three floors. I have the pleasure to be on the third floor. The 30 some odd steps I have to haul myself up every time I need something from my room will do wonders for my lower body if we stay here for any significant length of time. My 9X12 room contains a bed somewhere between a twin and full size, which resembles a hammock, as the mattress caves inward at the middle, and no matter where I start the night sleeping, I always wake up dead center. Upon arrival, there was a towel folded at the end of my bed, which is standard for any hotel, except most hotels don’t provide you with damp towels. There are a number of reasons the towel could have been damp, but on the off chance it’s because it had not yet fully dried after being used by somebody else, I chose to forgo my personal hygiene until I could secure a clean, dry towel (let‘s be honest, I had just showered that morning – there was no need for a towel for at least another 4 days). Also in my room, a desk and chair and a 10” TV with 5 channels, 4 of which are in Kiswahilli. Although I suppose it doesn’t matter how many channels I can view, as there are only 2 outlets in the entire room, one of which is at least 6 feet high on the wall (no idea why, but last I checked I wasn’t 6 feet tall, and neither are any of my cords) so I am forced to choose between plugging in my computer, phone or camera, or watching a show that may or may not be in English.
The room is tiled, which makes almost no sense because the second we all walked into our rooms, the red mud smeared everywhere and I may as well be walking outside it’s so dirty in here. I could have had my floor washed yesterday when they offered to change the sheets, but that required me leaving my key with the management, giving them free reign over my 2 suitcases of worldly possessions and electronics up for grabs. Also, I’ve been sleeping in my dream sac, so I’m not even dirtying the sheets they’re offering to wash, and since I have since seen the housekeepers hand washing everyone’s linens, I figure I’ll save their back a needless bending. So I’ve taken to removing my shoes and putting on my slippers before even entering the room, but somehow my socks are still filthy.
Currently, I’m gearing up to take a shower. There is electricity here (although yesterday the entire village had no electricity for about 8 hours, which is frustrating when you’re used to charging your electronics for 10 shillings – 10 cents – at the various charging shops around town), but apparently the hot water is still a hit or miss situation. I’ve been told to hit the switch for hot water far in advance of my shower; it’s been over 30 minutes – I’m about to give it a shot….. Well, the water definitely heats up after a 30 minute lead time. It would have been nice to know how to turn the COLD water on; I don’t appreciate having my skin scalded off first thing in the morning. The setup of the bathroom is similar to the one at the orphanage, and I think many foreign bathrooms. The showerhead sticks out of the wall between the sink and the toilet, forcing you to close the toilet seat and move anything you don’t want getting wet out of the way. It’s not the worst setup, aside form the cramped quarters – I may consider investing in an all in one bathroom when I get back to the states. A shower certainly doubles as a way to clean the appliances and floor in the bathroom.
So our first night at the hotel was a Friday; there were 6 of us staying in the rooms, and we decided to head out to a pub (which actually exist in this town) and get some dinner and a much needed drink. Like I mentioned before, the people of Njabini get offended if you call their home a village – it is actually much bigger than I initially suspected, and our move across town has opened my eyes to the amenities it has to offer. We ventured across the street to a local watering hole; I think the owner just saw 6 $$ signs walk in, as the presence of so many Muzungus in one place is bound to attract a crowd. The bar was really just a room with a single fluorescent bar on the ceiling, 3 or 4 picnic table like benches and tables and a fenced in bar, with a small hole in the front to serve the bottles through. Really though, it had the atmosphere of any anonymous townie bar in your home or college town. Grimy, dirty and bare bones, but that all you really need for a good night with friends sometimes.
I remember reading in my Rough Guides: Kenya book that taking a glass bottle of any kind out of an establishment is considered stealing, because of the deposit on the bottle. I learned this to be true the hard way, when I was forced to chug the soda I had bought in front of the cashier, so he could be sure I didn’t walk out with it. I also read, and remember thinking that there was no way this actually happened in real life, that you are not obligated to drink the beer bought for you; the “bartender” will set it in front of you on the table, unopened, and if you choose not to open it that night, you can put it behind the bar “on credit” and drink it the following night. As all of you know, I’m sure, I have never been known not to consume a drink that is placed in front of me, however when you haven’t had a drop of alcohol in over a month and the beers are like 18 oz, I quickly saw the genius in this “credit” idea.
After sitting down and making the obligatory, “ahhh muzungu invasion” jokes and acknowledgements (we have found it’s easier to joke about it right away rather than deal with the open stares and whispers for the remainder of the night), we saw a man with a huge tray of food enter through the front door and set it down at our neighbors table. It looked like a combination of spinach, beans and goat, and we were all starving, so we quickly flagged down the man in the white coat who had brought the food in and asked where it had come from, and could we please place an order. We proceeded to order one of whatever the other table had, and 10 minutes later there was a steaming tray of goat, cabbage, beans and potatoes in front of us. Turns out, it came from the butchery across the way – apparently they make deliveries around here. As I’ve said before, my standards for cleanliness, deliciousness, quantity of flies and sterility have dropped in direct relation to the length of my stay in Kenya. We dug into the steaming plate of mystery meat and sucked back our 18oz Tusker Ales.
Before the dust had settled from our arrival, I had already fielded one marriage proposal, and let me tell you, it did NOT include the rock of a diamond that I always imagined would be coupled with my first proposal of marriage. Jonathan, my “fiancé,” sat in front of me, introduced himself to our table, and turned his full attention to me. I believe the first question he asked was if I was married; I said no, and turned to my friend next to me hoping that would dissuade him from pursuing the line of questioning any further. He did get up and walk away, but it was a short lived victory. Minutes later, he plopped down in front of me again, took my hand, and asked me to marry him. I laughed nervously and said no, sorry. He asked why not. In an effort to be gentle, I said that my refusal was based only on the fact that I lived in America and that it would never work. He then asked how long I was staying, and when I told him another 3 or 4 months, he said, ahh, that’s plenty of time, maybe we can work out an arrangement in the meantime? I was certain I should be offended by that remark, so I told him to track me down in another 2 months to reassess my level of desperation, and excused myself to use the phone. As I am the only blonde among the girls here, I make quite the impression when my hair is down. I didn’t understand why there was such a commotion surrounding me that night until someone pointed out the Britney Spears poster mounted on the wall – long, blonde, wavy hair; apparently the resemblance was uncanny. If only they could have seen my matching 6-pack abs (ha), I would have been signing autographs left and right. Mind you, this was a circa 1999 Britney Spears photo – being compared to this version of Britney is probably the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten.
While outside trying to make an intercontinental call, my personal favorite stalker (suitor?) of the night followed me outside and tried to strike up a conversation. I indicated that I was trying to make a phone call to the other side of the world by plugging my free ear with my finger and turning into the wall. Apparently, subtlety is lost on determined Kenyan men and he continued to try to strike up a conversation. As I stood, rejecting his advances with one ear and listening to my mother reject me with the other ear, telling me she was too busy to talk to me because she was on a museum tour in NYC (honestly mom, I’m calling from AFRICA), I began to feel for the poor guy. I had tasted rejection firsthand, and it was bitter.
Now this particular suitor was quite the character; I couldn’t help but notice him when he entered the bar – and probably not for the reasons he was hoping to be noticed that night. Not only was he wearing a traffic cone orange, mesh, body hugging T shirt with a red Kangol cap, but he was sporting Obama Brand Jeans, held up by a 5 inch wide and 3 inch tall USA belt buckle. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, I said it: Obama Brand Jeans. I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen, until the next morning when we exited our hotel and walked past a shop with a wall FULL of Obama Jeans. Don’t fret there will be pictures to follow. I wonder if all of Africa has made the President of the United States a fashion icon, or just his home country of Kenya. And I also wonder if he knows that there are Kenyans wearing his name on their asses in Njabini. There are Obama bubblegum pops, pens, notebooks, and posters galore in this place. Don’t you have to sign some sort of release to let people use your name to promote something? Or is that just implicit when you take your oath as President. “I Barack Obama do solemnly swear to uphold the office of President and serve the American people to the best of my ability, blah, blah, blah…..and I also allow my name to be used in collaboration with any and all apparel and product promotions and endorsements worldwide.” If President Obama has nothing better to do than sign away his name to be sewn on the backs of g-h-e-t-t-o jeans, then I may seriously reconsider my vote for him. Also, I will probably buy a pair to bring home. Feel free to place an order with me via-email. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity folks. Does anyone have Obama’s address? I can grab him a pair too, I just need his inseam measurement.
So I had already become acquainted with Mr. Obama when, unbeknownst to me, he approached my friend Toby, and asked how much I cost. I overheard a bit of the conversation, but at the time did not know it was about me. Apparently he walked up to Toby, said he had money on him, and how much would I cost for the night? I then heard Toby tell him to F off, but I later learned that he had offered 10,000 shillings (about $100 – I should be insulted, right?) and some poultry. When I heard about the poultry, I thought about accepting the offer, as it’s been over a month since I’ve had any protein except some questionable “goat.“ However I reconsidered when I realized I would probably be paid in live poultry, and slaughtering, plucking and cooking the chicken in addition to whatever services I would be expected to perform in exchange seemed like it would be more trouble than it was worth. All the same, I guess I should be flattered that at my worst: no makeup, questionable hygiene habits and filthy jeans and sweatshirt on, I’m still worth $100 and a couple chickens to a Kenyan man. Its good to know I have a backup plan. So I’ve got that going for me…which is nice.
At one point, one of our English volunteers got into a discussion with a clearly intoxicated man. He was of the impression that the Chinese have a very negative influence in Africa, and that the election of President Obama was detrimental to the cause, because he refused to nuke China. Apparently that was the crux of his argument; the Chinese were bad, and needed to be nuked. Obama was not going to nuke China, therefore, Obama is bad. Now, generally, the drunken musings of an old man are nothing anyone pays much mind to, however he was very, very adamant that anybody who voted for Obama was essentially voting against Africa. He decided to turn on me, assuming that I was American, and began to accost me for voting for such a vile man. Trying to dodge the spittle that was launched in my direction with the delivery of each barb, I attempted to speak in my very best English accent and deny any association with America. Apparently, I do not perform well under pressure. Under non-duress induced circumstances, my English accent isn’t half bad, but I botched my attempt so badly that even an inebriated old man saw right through it, and continued to accost me until he was forcibly removed from the establishment.
As an interesting side note, this is the only African I have met who does not applaud the Americans for electing Obama, and while I have certainly heard criticism of the Obama administration over the past year, this is definitely the first time that I’ve heard him criticized because he won’t nuke China.
The following night, we found ourselves in a back alley pool hall. I can’t say that I have ever watched a World Cup draft in my life; now I can say I witnessed it as one of 3 women in a pool room full of men off of an alley next to our hotel. I suppose that until this week I also couldn’t have said that I had been perceived as a “lady of the night” OR had such swift marriage proposal, OR been compared to a circa-1999 Britney Spears. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty productive couple of evenings, as far as checking things off my bucket list that I didn’t know I should have included in the first place goes…