Thursday, March 24, 2011
Kenya Calling - Turkana Trippers
Don’t get me wrong, I did mean ‘trippers’ and not the other word that many of my friends may like to assume. Let’s begin with a blank statement: the Turkana trip that I undertook while in Kenya is one of the most bizarre undertakings of my entire life, and perhaps by some stretch of imagination the most bizarre of all.
Now those of you who know what I factually do (actually this is a misnomer since I sincerely do nothing to justify my existence on this planet) can easily gauge the depth and boldness of this statement. Reasons were numerous but above all, triumphant over everything else was the strange and odd ensemble of people who by accident and design became my fellow voyagers. Collectively I would call them ‘Turkana Trippers’, individually I won’t name them at all. While the entire trip lasting nearly a fortnight had its own ups and downs and breath-stopping adventures and encounters galore, of which I would divulge elsewhere, I must chronicle and dedicate this article to all my fellow ‘Turkana Trippers’ since it was their oddities, absurdities, freakishness that made the trip all the more indelible from my fickle and absent memory.
A disclaimer; this article is being written with full and total pun intended and some of the trippers, if you ever chance upon this, may take offence (not everyone has the stomach for self-humor) so no names would be used though each character would be described using a set of adjectives and observations that suit them best (at least from my point of view). The trippers would know who I am referring to, and to all my other good readers the trippers are supposed to remain obfuscated, confusing and vague, hazy and hilarious to the point of delirious and so they shall remain. So if this post, at the end, leaves you more confused and dizzy than before, but with a lighter heart and an aching belly then don’t fret, since that is and has been the intent right from its inception.
As your scribe and oddity collector par-excellence I must add a final word that none of this is fabrication or product of poetic liberty. These people do exist in our dimension and they are excellent samples of human kind. In their ordinary daily routine life I am sure they are exemplary in what they do and certainly contribute more towards bettering this planet than I. But this post is also a funny reminder to all of us that even when we fundamentally remain who we are, circumstances and situations, locations and a very long winding dusty dirty ride may have significant effect on our personalities that may alter or reveal our that self that is normally not known even to ourselves. While this alteration may only last momentarily and we are back again soon in our old and amicable shell, these moments are important revelations and may form memories of fun to last a life time and then some.
An acknowledgement right at the beginning; ‘Turkana Trippers’ is not my original thought but a term coined by one of the most intrepid of the trippers, a Caucasian male no less and from him I have borrowed the term (without his approval of course) and you may call it plagiarism but I am sure he, the nice person he is, wouldn’t take offence and not sue me for any libel of liberty. After all he knows what I do and knows that all I can offer him in compensation would be a steep hike up some mountain for which he would have to bear all costs.
All drama, all voyage, all journey and all life ever lived begins at the beginning and with collaboration of the major players in some manner insane bordering on chaos (please refer to the ‘Chaos’ theory of creation).
After a flurry of phone calls and emails that only adds to the already confused atmosphere of the country and participants in that order the trippers finally gather at the house of the central perpetrator of the crime under consideration on a fine evening following such directions and maps that even seasoned Nairobi residents can’t decipher. My two companions or escorts whatever you may prefer, both of who respond to same name though of different sex hailing from different continents, and I are the first trippers to reach our secret meeting place. Our hostess, the omniscient demanding instant obedience, greets us in.
One look at her and I begin to have thoughts (mostly unflattering) as to the kind of adventure I am about to enroll myself into. Her name suggests she has Indian origin somewhere deep into her soul. Her primary occupation as it transpires is to raise fund for the Kenya Museum Society, in which she asserts she is the highest annual grosser. We munch sandwich, samosas, and cakes that we wash down with tea and coffee. We pay the requisite enrollment fee and wait for others to rumble in. As we gather the trippers number 22; perfect for a cricket match sans an umpire. I look around the room and wonder if everyone turns up can we measure 22 yrds for the pitch. I am or used to be (two and half decade before) an accomplished wicketkeeper and opening batsman.
Next trickles in an ancient pair; the man holding his sagging frame upright in belted trousers while his wife (as I rightfully guessed) radiates like a lighthouse in dark storm. She must have been a looker when the days were kind to her. His occupation seems entirely dubious when he claims he does nothing and UNEP pays him handsomely for doing just that. He has open guffaw while his lady has guarded ones. He is tall she is short, and he is rough while she is delicate in a regal manner. They proclaim to be seasoned and veteran safarians (if there is such a term) and campers (little did I understand then their concept of camping). He is Brit while the lady could be from anywhere, wherever they teach women to be deliberately coy. I think she is from Moldova while a later incident places her nearer to Mauritian coast, some conjectured east European while some offered a mixed lineage hinting at mafia connection. Such porcelain complexion has to have some Spanish conquistador genes for sure. Till the end her origins remain a mystery, not that it matters to anyone in the least. They dive and nimble into the sandwiches respectively.
Another couple joins us shortly and much to my instant liking. The man who would later prove to be the most resourceful (in a wasteful manner of speaking) of all might have been Dutch or Danish or some other nationality begin with the letter ‘D’ while his wife is obviously Japanese, my favored nation, who rolls her eyes while her mouth forms the perfect ‘O’ at every given opportunity. He looks weather beaten and beaten up and the broad Jap lady looks well-fed and fed up with. He seems to know almost something about everything and almost nothing about anything while his wife only nods and applauds his knowledgeable innuendos. She apparently has no occupation though fully occupied while he is preoccupied with something that has to be more interesting than attending business meetings all over Africa. On a serious note he does something concerning someone’s welfare and social status; could be his own if I read incorrectly. They bite into everything on the dining table and behave like jolly good old fellows. Then comes a well set lady swishing her skirt in a manner born sweeping all opposition (if anyone dares to) and cooperation on her path with equal equanimity. She has a loud guffaw much like the night cry of some tree jumping quadrupeds and bright enough to solve Kenya’s depleting power problems. She proclaims she lost her husband on the way or perhaps she meant her husband is a lost case or is lost at home or office or maybe she works for the lost and found department, whatever; and she is here by her dainty own self to contribute to the conspiracy though her husband would join us eventually to set it going. She speaks little laughs a lot, eats little, drops a lot and gives the feeling that she couldn’t give a damn if we were heading for the moon as long as it takes care of Christmas and New Year somewhere out of Nairobi. She speaks and behaves like a Brit, which she verifies later and for her dubious occupation or profession she designs designer junk jewel for the gullible. She whispers that she has samples to display and pieces on sale in her car but no one shows any interest in that direction so she quips down and downs more of coffee and scones.
While we wait for some more, as our hostess insists, we reduce the pile of food on table like Egyptian canal diggers and few maps are drawn out of her collection and spread open in the centre. Only the old sagging belted man and the Jap lady’s husband corner the map and jumble and mumble like shady shamans. Soon enough with a joyful shriek of feminine nature enter trio of girls, who along with their companion whom we meet later are named ‘Charlie’s Angels’. One is a dark bespectacled Prima Donna (is she American?) who proves to be a doctor while another (she is French for the sake of this post) is lanky and languid with a tossed-up tuft of unruly tress and her friend the tough looking Swede with short and stocky structure and a carpet of cranium caressing hair. The doctor doctors everything with her smile and wide circumambulating eyes and her favorite expression soon emerges to be ‘OMG’ in bold capital. Her other two friends are again into NGO sector doing good for someone somewhere apparently. They drop terms like advocacy, white paper, Geneva protocol and I do not dare to drop anything else. Women company is always welcome on a road journey so I quickly befriend the Swede since she is the one I can understand the least. They avoid the food like plague.
The couple that enters next can easily win the handsomest couple award on a bad hair day. My brother is born-again Italian and I have many Italian friends and I have spent enough sunny days under clouded Italian skies to know in an instant that this beautiful couple is Italian and they become my second favored tripping companions. The guy is an ace wildlife photographer and safari guide based out of Mara while the woman is on a sabbatical from her earlier social sector work now planning to do major in environmental science from UK. They beam at us and we beam back, a nice display of light and firework around. Italians don’t shy away from food, even when it is cold and clammy and decidedly overexposed, so they proceed to lighten the table just a little bit more. By then the meeting, briefings and deliberations are well under way, hence confusion and bewilderment is the order of the hour. I am the only complete outsider and stranger to the country and contents hence I hold my peace, even when I figure that they are reading the map upside down. The names of places that our hostess rattles out like a paranoid parakeet mean nothing to me; they could be craters in Pluto for all I care. I lean back and size up my companions who would be with me on a trip that is supposed to be life and mind transforming if I am to believe those who can never be believed.
The last attendant for the evening literally stumble inside the room and collapses on the low settee next to the stairs. The meeting silences as everyone gapes at the gasping figure who seem to have just completed a marathon twice over. It takes few minutes of complete incomprehension on my part to finally comprehend the sex of the person. It’s a she and she is old or monumental if used synonymously. She is introduced as the ultimate authority on the area where we are headed in the days to come. With so many years of advantage over all of us combined she should be an authority on anything that she chooses to be. I do not doubt such epicurean wisdom.
The lady mumbles and fumbles and then finally tumbles before telling us all that she has nothing more to contribute. Though shortly she pulls out an equally ancient map from her belt that is even more illegible than the one we have been referring so far. I do not understand her diction, her vocation, her aspiration, her consternation, her nomination neither the cause for her perspiration. Whizzing and wheezing she can have a cardiac seizure any moment, is she capable of such an arduous journey, no matter how much of an authority she supposedly is! I ponder, but I am the only one thus burdened. Everyone else seems to understand perfectly what she is up to and wants us to be up to as well. As the evening winds up with much vigorous handshakes, giggles, kisses (cheek and cheeky types only) blown and planted, farewell shots, etc the only thing I can unearth about the lady is that she is of Austro-German origin, or I could be completely wrong, and has traveled the length and breadth of East Africa and then some with her husband of yester years. With her silver hair tumbling like Niagara she could easily pass off as the fairy Godmother of the pumpkin fame. Such divinity should not only be respected and admired but must be kept on one’s correct side.
On the day of departure that finally arrives like a much harassed and persecuted turtle, we all assemble (one large truck and three vehicles) at a road side gas station sponsored cafeteria and I meet the rest of the cast. The jewel designer’s husband turns out to be a bald man of silver smooth tongue with a name that puts him at the northern shores of UK but insists being a Brit. His humor is infectious and limitless and he covers his henpecked freckles amicably under raucous Rugby jokes. Interestingly his occupation is to balance the financial balance sheets of one of the world’s largest brewery and alcohol brands. They are driving a shining semi-SUV that would soon be turned into dust our conspiracy leader declares and only then he declares that it is company owned and rather new and heavily insured. While I am munching a dried piece of orange peel, a copper haired lady literally trips on a piece of plastic and stumbles at me. She turns out to be a social dentist and of Indian origin. During the trip she lets me into many secrets of African tribal dentistry practices. She is followed by an antediluvian couple who again have Indian origin and the sweet little man turns out to be a legendary doctor who has been personal doctor to Kenya’s founding president. During our trip we would celebrate his 80th (perhaps) birthday with some cakes and snacks that his wife had kept hidden from him till then. The ‘Charlie’s Angels’ had gone up in number with the addition of another fine specimen of feminine charm and grace. The newcomer is tall, unusually fair and ruddy and her Slavic accented heavy drawl reveals her to be from one of the former Soviet republics. Currently she is out of her former job and the trip is an excuse to fill up the gap before she took up another assignment on return. Then I collide into the last couple of the team, who at best can be called copiously and conspicuously cupid. They both are short though the woman isn’t tiny by any standards. The man is thin and bearded with a mischievous glint in his eyes. They had to have at least three decades of togetherness and it is plain to see that they still have eyes only for each other. For some odd reason, as I recall today, it seems that the man was a lawyer while his wife could have been anything. But I may be completely off the mark on all counts. They came from the coastal town of Mombasa, or was it Marsabit! Again of Indian origin!
As the days rolled into nights and days of interminable heat, dust, pestilent, roads that were an insult to their names, irritants and sore bottoms, each of the trippers opened or closed down as the case may be and accordingly I learned more or less about human emotions and errors of intention and commission than I had learned before.
Our esteemed leader has the habit of throwing her habit, hoopla shaped waist and arms akimbo and declaring that no one is listening to her or paying her any marks of respect due to such a fearsome and dynamic strategist. Even then when no one pays her any attention she gives resigned but resonant looks to all us mere mortals and look beseechingly to one of the men folk (mostly at me or the man from the ‘D’ nation) and utter in first person, ‘Ok, can someone get me… (food / chair / tea / fresh air / etc)’. At this point she normally gets what she wants not necessarily from the one she has asked from.
The case of curious couple of sagging man and his beautiful wife of indeterminate mixed origin gets queerer and queerer as the days go by. They drive a white Landrover with UN number plate, which means they get duty free cheap patrol and wine everywhere (talk about political freedom!). Their car interior is shining new, the camping gear more so. He drives like a maniac braving all troughs and crests as if they don’t exist. At every camping place they whizz their vehicle to a remote corner, far away from prying eyes and the man would leap atop the roof like a well oiled chipmunk while the lady would pull out a camp chair and a glass of wine in reverse order. While he would pitch the custom built rooftop tent she would sip her ambrosia with deliberate tardiness, producing barely audible words of encouragement or censure perhaps to her man struggling and belching on top with the tent and the step ladder. That done the man descends to mother earth, huffing and puffing but smiling dazzlingly showing his ruddy face to his woman with pride and flashing teeth bared like that of a predated puma. They or rather he would then get the gas going at the back of the vehicle and cook up something normally smelling nice, all under the cover of a strategically placed canvas and proceed to serve to his lady love. Food done, they would then spread out for a while on the armchairs beneath an umbrella either with a book or with blank expression on their faces. Not once during the entire operation, day after day, would the lady stir from her armchair. They are super efficient and neat in their camping operation to say the least while the rest of the trippers would still be fiddling with their food, tents, ablutions, medications, mosquitoes, etc. While pandemonium prevails around them, the dainty couple would walk through the debris and upheaval of human activity and presence, looking and passing unwarranted comments about what they witness much like the CNN reporters covering Iraq under siege. The man’s acrid humor soon gets on everyone’s nerves, and as self preserving human beings, we all soon learn to either avoid them altogether (almost impossible) or to turn a deaf ear. I use cotton wool in my first aid kit to my advantage by stuffing them in my ear. Towards the end of the trip they suddenly become over friendly to my poor self, offering food (that I suspiciously accept) and solace for my body and soul. Someone whispers they have an eligible daughter and I maintain my modicum decorum thereafter. I am not sure if to wash away any feelings of disharmony that they may have generated among the trippers during the trip, or if they are normally that cordial and generous, but post our return they invite all of us for lunch at their home. The food is delicious but deadly as I almost choke on chilly laced main dish… Mauritian lunch the lady smiles cherubically.
The Jap lady and her over testosterone charged hubby provided humor, relief and food to everyone around. She remains the most delectably decked up among all women; pencil creased skirt, spotless chemise, silk hat, perfect bow on her lips, powder puffs galore and earrings. Her hubby is modern day Laurence of Arabia including the deep lost look in his blue eyes. She would slip, slide and fall at every step into every ditch and slush present and invisible and he would patiently extract her from each encouraging her with cooing words of comfort. He along with the Slavic girl would normally be the first ones to run into a trouble (not created by them) or to view some curiosity. While the Jap lady would always be the last. They and I get along moderately, more for the reasons of incomprehension than any reasons of incompatibility.
The jewel designer and her beer guzzling hubby is everyone’s darling since they behave like Mr. and Mrs. Santa. Their car barely has anything as they dine and camp with the others traveling in the big truck and they offer all their meager resources to everyone. They mingle and befriend everyone, including me and even offer the use of their bedroom and loo to others in times of need. Such generosity and unblemished philanthropy is rare in these days of resource crunch and they instantly become my lifelong friends.
All the Austro-German lady does is mumble under her breath; devour her box of apples and dry fruits, jumps off and in the truck with agility far below her age and looks for stones and rocks on the ground. She and our leader form an odd couple as they often walk away from the crowd in search of birds, seeds, stones, and places to powder their noses. Even at Lake Turkana when some of us, the more intrepid ones, decide to go for a swim, this lady goes far from everyone and dips into the lake behind the curtain of a big rock. She is unusually sprite and spirited and I am curious to find out her tonic. I don’t get to know her well but it is plain to see that she indeed is an authority; of what I couldn’t decipher till the end, but she almost knows something of everything to a degree good enough to befuddle the rest.
The Italian photographer keeps materializing camera bodies, lenses, filters like a conjurer from his bag one after another while his girl plays the ideal assistant pointing out the subjects for his shots or holding up the lens for him or putting her hat across to cut out the sun glare. She is beautiful and gorgeous enough to put the desert roses to shame and with her squeaky and long drawn voice can be heard over the din that the truck and its occupants generate. The photographer speaks sparingly with words and more with gestures. His girl is shy or scared of water and produces one dress after another as the journey proceeds. I like them and they like me. We discuss a lot about photography, Italy and literature.
The legendary doctor, the very diminutive ENT specialist sleeps for most of the journey or just sits silently looking inside the truck as his vertically diminutive wife sits by the window keeping one eye out and the other (sternly) on her husband of 50 years. They don’t exchange many words; with so many years of living under the same roof it’s no wonder. I doubt if they still has anything left to say to each other or in a manner not already spoken. But whenever there is a conversation, it would begin with a nudge or a jumbled mumble from the old man followed by severe reprimand from the lady. In either way the man doesn’t get much word around. He is soon adopted by the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ as their toy boy and they tease him, play with his bald pate. He in turn laughs, blushes and has a jolly good time. His birthday is a great success that we celebrate on the lake shore. I might have at the most exchanged two or three sentences with this couple since I had nothing to say to them at all. Just their spirit to undertake this journey is enough to silence my mind with admiration.
‘Charlie’s Angels’ and I get along well, except the French Angel who till the end remains distant, vague and unimpressed with whatever I do or did or say or said. I did not mind though as the other three were a handful anyway. The doctor is the most paranoid of all and of all things living and dead. She also has the most stylish and up-market wardrobe with matching adornments. As they emerge one after another I understand the mystery of her massive suitcases. I rescue her once from a bog into which she is sinking inch by inch. She nearly pulls me in with her in her fright then I hold on to her as she stretches to her utmost length to wash her feet in a water hole. It proves unsuccessful so she extends her legs out of the truck window and cleanses her feet with much precious mineral water. She is scared of injuries, cuts, cold and blood as it proves later when one of the staff gets injured and she is called upon to do her caduceus duties. The Swede is an exact opposite, doesn’t bother about her appearance at all and speaks little with a nasal twang to her words. We discuss skiing, northern lights and the Arctic. The Slavic-Serbo-Croat girl is a powerhouse and always active like they are prone to be. She drinks like fish or crocs in these parts and is fearless to a delightful degree. A loud mouth, constantly cheerful, ever ready to shake a limb and to shoulder any manual work, she is everyone’s favorite. Yet she thinks I am crazy and asks me about why I do what I actually do for a living. They surprise us all on the New Year camp fire when they emerge dressed in cocktail gowns with teardrop earrings enveloped in fragrances vagrant enough to die for. The trip ends with me discovering the least about the French Angel. I still don’t know who she is, what her name is and where does she come from or where did she go. Does that matter! Absolutely not. Some mysteries, like the Bermuda Square must always remain unresolved and gain mythical aspirations.
That brings me to the couple from Mombasa or Malindi who were always with each other and others as well. They are sporty, fun and cheerful. The man’s goatee is endearing as the woman’s smile. We get along really well and they share much of their food with me. We spend many hours in conversation that surprisingly I fail to recollect now. They invite me to their home on the coast and I assure them of my visit one day. They are good, generous and warm hearted people who mind their own business and are always welcome in a group.
I must sum up with the dentist who becomes a good friend. Quite a bit of the journey she and I sit next to each other, and while I look at the landscape outside she would educate me about the place. I find her erudite and a brilliant conversationist cum conservationist. We speak even after we return to Nairobi. She presents me with two books as promised earlier and it’s a pity that due to my other commitments I am unable to accept her supper invitation. She visits India often and we agree that on her next trip to India, if I am around and if she is passing through Delhi then we must endeavor to meet.
I have lived scattering my life across some of the most hostile and inhospitable terrains on Earth through and with some of the oddest ensemble of human species and perhaps only for that reason the Turkana Trippers to me seemed an exemplary gathering of eclectic people; elegant, divergent, coolant and potent and then jocular and puritanic and satanic but above all interesting and inciting. I love them all though some of them may not reciprocate that emotion to the same degree. Mazel tov!