Monday, August 27, 2007

Requiem for a dream...

An intermission in Kenya/Uganda story time.

At the conclusion of one of those maddening work days in which it seems like everything went frustratingly wrong, I returned to Scott's house. For what seemed like the first time in quite some time, I didn't have anything that necessarily needed done tonight, and there wasn't anyone that I just had to see. I had an open schedule, so to speak.

Though only 5PM -- early by most standards -- I was wiped. I surrendered. Succumbing to the idea that I'd catch twelve blissful hours of sleep, I headed upstairs to my (decidedly temporary) bedroom and laid with a book I've been meaning to finish since Nairobi.

I'd only read perhaps twenty pages when the urge became too great. I lofted the book to the floor, turned over to face the (cancerous) wall, and departed the world.

Just moments ago, I awoke -- only two hours later. I had a dream -- a wonderful, enthralling, believable dream. But I woke up. Seriously -- I'm feeling sad because I woke up, and it turns out that the little reality my mind had created for me isn't real. (I think I'd make an ideal candidate for heroin addict.)

To wit, my dream:

We (and we are many -- perhaps a dozen mid-twenties to early-thirties singles) lived in a huge old victorian home that had been converted to apartments. The halls were enormous and efficient and echoed the constant tip-top of inexpensive but stylish heels and the shuffling of white-socked feet and giggles and lovers' quarrels and plans being made. It felt like home, despite it being shared.

In the fading twilight, a group of six or so of us decided to go out and play. Play in the sense that you went out to play as a kid. The excitement was palpable. We rushed to the grand park of our gated neighborhood -- which seemed only to encompass our house and another, similar mansion (but darker, and perhaps a bit more brooding.) Reaching it, we decided that we'd play with our 'powers.'
Now, I'm not one to have 'superpower' dreams... in fact, I can't remember ever having had one before... but I suppose this one qualifies. Neither I nor anyone else's power was altogether 'super', but we did have abilities that are impossible in the waking world.
My 'power' was an effete sort of magnetism that could, when I focused really, really hard, affect objects within maybe an arm's reach.

I sat atop a fence surrounding the park, watching others run, laughing, back and forth before me. In the wan illumination of a very few streetlights, I counted happy young people playing tag and sharks and minnows and Hot Lava! amid the park's dark green, rubber-coated swings and monkey bars and slides and seesaws.

I turned to my left and saw -- sitting near me and also on the fence -- the object of my quiet adoration. I felt my heart swell as I took in her silhouette. God, she was so beautiful... I've known her for so long, and I've been little closer to her than 'friend.' She is brilliantly smart... she is overtly caustic but truly caring beneath the veneer... she... I love her. I love her, and I can feel it in me.

She gave me a wry, impish smile, and I understood that she wanted to play with me. She was close enough, I decided. I focused my mind, intensely. I felt the rush of blood to my temples, and I heard the whoosh-whoosh of my pulse behind by eardrums. I clenched my hands and drew the circle of my vision in, tighter and tighter until it collapsed, flashing an utter black before I was presented the world again in grey-relief.

The pendant on Mila's necklace lifted from between her breasts and began floating towards me, straining against its simple gold chain. The countless painted bangles she wore on her right wrist all shuffled to the top of her hand, collecting tightly and slowly causing her arm to raise, pointing at me. Her hair softly lifted at the ends, as though I'd rubbed a balloon over her scalp. Giggling, she jumped from her perch atop the fence and tore off through the park.

I ran as fast as I could, following her as she twisted in and out of trees and towards the other old home in our neighborhood, a dark but unexpectedly unfrightening (and mostly vacant) hospice-care home occupied by aged people and a couple well-intentioned lunatics.

Somehow, she'd given me the slip, so I searched for her along hedgelines and behind locked sheds and around the trellised porch. I crept over to the stairway leading up to the porch when suddenly Mila flew right by me -- flew -- atop a saucer, like the kind you'd ride in the snow. She'd apparently got in the thing and tried to surf the rail alongside the stairs down to the yard from the porch. Somehow, she became oriented all crooked-y, and she landed half on her back, her delicate, feminine hands white-knuckling the saucer's sides as she made her impact. I heard a sharp crack amid the muffled thud of her collision with the ground, and she took in her breath suddenly as though the wind had been knocked out of her.

I raced to her side, Mila now free of the disk and laying sprawled, her hair in disarray, and noticed a deep look of fear exploding from behind her otherwise placid brown eyes. "I broke my back, Justin," she said, not timidly. She began turning over to her side, drawing one hand as if to point, saying, "... right here.." I softly grasped one shoulder and made her return to her previous position.

"Sweetheart, I don't know... it was a nasty fall, and I'm sure it hurts... but it's unlikely you broke your back. You're hurt, yes, but maybe something's just out of whack, like a slipped vertebrae or something... given that you just moved around a little... from what I understand, if your back was broken, you probably wouldn't be able to move like that..."

"Maybe," she replied, hesitantly but clearly accepting my care, "... okay. But it really hurts." Tears welled up in her eyes, and she took one of my hands with hers, clenching it... through which I felt a connection -- a charge of emotion -- that told me that maybe -- just maybe -- she loved me, too.

I gave her hand a soft squeeze and said, "I'll take care of you, love." She understood. I felt the true weight of love descend over me... I felt compassion and responsibility in equal measure. She was mine, now, and I would take care of her.

I left her side, insisting that she remain still, and raced up the stairs, where I ordered someone to go inside and bring back a stretcher or something similar. Without question, he ran into the building and shortly returned with an enormous gurney, made strangely of thick green plastic. It didn't have corners; instead its edges were formed by soft, rolled-up extensions of the green, gritty stuff. Super-super-ergonomic. It was so wide in expanse that were it not for the indentation offering accommodation to only one, surely three or four patients could lay side-by-side in comfort. Very strange.

I pushed it from behind, crashing down the steps towards Mila. Once I'd reached her, I pushed down with my foot on some sort of lever, and it collapsed to ground-level, at which point three or four of our playmates had gathered and assisted me in getting her on top of it. "Just to be careful," I told her, as I brought the safety belts from under the bed and across her delicate frame and snugly locked her into position.

Someone had taken her shoes off, leaving her insanely cute socked feet exposed to the now chilled night air. Magically, a small blanket appeared, and I placed it over her. She drew into the tightest of fetal positions -- despite the safety restraints, and balled up for warmth and comfort and (as it seemed to me) in a sign of her contentedness with my care. I pinched the blanket between her body and the gurney, making sure to wrap her feet like a burrito -- I don't want those toes escaping, I thought with a smile.

All set, I lifted the gurney back up with the depression of another lever, and I began pushing her back towards our house, which sat at the bottom of a significant hill from where we were. I began guiding more than pushing as the bed and my precious Mila picked up speed, but I was absolutely confident that I wouldn't make a mistake, despite the cries of "Justin, be careful!" from the group we'd just left. I pushed at the gurney's corners with just enough force and at precisely all the right times to avoid obstacles and race ever faster towards our own front door.

The end.

p.s. I am aware that there is definitely some sort of depravity to be found in dreaming about being in love with a celebrity. Sue me. (Though I think it is what she represents, rather than she as a person with which I was/am in love.)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Kenya and Uganda (Part Two)

Day two.

The following morning, I ate an honest-to-god breakfast that did not look like this:

Instead, it was heaven-sent manna prepared by the Hilton Nairobi chefs. I may have even had a banana. Mmmm.

Sated, I left for the busy streets outside and took in the sights of:
  1. People not necessarily committed to killing me;
  2. Buildings made of stone, brick, concrete and steel, rather than dung, sticks and discarded plastic shopping bags;
  3. Automobiles belching the vilest industrial filth imaginable. (Refer to fellating an exhaust pipe in Part One.)
Unfortunately, in the intervening time between sleeping and feasting, I had received an email from the outfitter with whom I'd planned on rafting the Tana and Athi rivers indicating that the water levels were too low. Of course, the only reason I'd come to Kenya was to see and feel water. (You are kindly reminded that I had just spent eight months in a searing Hell.)

How nice it was, then, that I was accosted by a "finder" not 25 steps from the hotel. He offered me (as expected) mzungu-approved safaris, and I told him I was interested. He subsequently took my arm in hand and ushered me through a dizzying series of avenues and alleys until I was dispatched with great fanfare to a smiling man seated behind a dirty, disarrayed veneer desk who promised to 'make my African dreams come true.'


I told him I wanted to whitewater raft, and related the story I'd been given by Savage Wilderness. He promptly assured me that everything would be made right, and simultaneously took up his desk phone (rotary!) and mobile and dialed through to parts of his mysterious network of 'contacts.'


Given that he couldn't accommodate my desire to raft, would I be interested in seeing the Masai Mara? Perhaps Hell's Gate?

No. Oi... what a waste of time.

I left, crestfallen and struggling to find some sort of solution. I needed water.

Having returned to my hotel room, I despondently sat at the desk and checked my email. Hey hey! I had received an email from a different 'travel service' to whom I had pleaded my case when I'd earlier discovered that Savage was going to bone me. "Call me immediately, I can help," it read.

I did so, and had a cheery conversation with a man I could only imagine as fat. No one else could be so jolly. He asked that I come to his office; I agreed. I left the hotel and hired a cab to his address where I was met -- notably, this time -- without undue fanfare. In fact, the bastard was 30 minutes late.

Once he'd arrived, I was ushered to his cluttered workspace where I sat amid piles of brochures and pamphlets and maps and across from (and uncomfortably close to) three young Kenyan women typing furiously at keyboards. (I would later learn that they were his interns, and they were engaged in updating his web page -- of which he is extraordinarily proud.)

He insisted that he could solve my problem (once I made it clear that I only wanted to raft) and, like his predecessor, made all number of calls to his (own) network.

Fail. Sigh.

"Would you be interested in going to Uganda? You could raft the source of the Nile from Lake Victoria. I could have you there tomorrow morning."

The Nile?!? Holy hell!

Ten hours later, I was on a flight from Nairobi to Kampala, where I was met by two men who (and I'm not being melodramatic here) are chiefly responsible for changing my life. And it wasn't just because of the Nile. I'll explain in my next update.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Kenya and Uganda (Part One)

I'm home. As promised, a trip report.

Day One

Arriving in Nairobi, I was immediately struck by how green everything is. In contrast to the desert hellhole to which I'd been posted for eight months, Nairobi is heaven. Of course, 'This is Africa' (and all that), so it's not like Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has gates or anything. No, instead we deplaned to the tarmac from which we passengers walked over to the terminal to process through customs and such.

Bliss. The air was so clean, so pure and crisp and cool! (Those who have traveled to Nairobi may be struck by the irony in that statement, given -- as I later learned -- to be in Nairobi is to, essentially, fellate a diesel tailpipe.)

In short order, I was given a visa and welcomed to the Real East Africa. After collecting my luggage, I exited the airport and stood outside among the milling throngs of people coming and going all hither and thither and just smiled. I was free. Furthermore, I was finally in a place that spoke one of my learned foreign languages. I was going to get immersion practice, and I was thrilled.

Rather than hire a taxi to my hotel, I asked a red-coated customer service agent (in Swahili!) what bus would take me there. He told me where to stand and told me to take the next one that arrived. So I did.

It is called the "City Hoppa." It was packed with a teeming mass of commuters. Suspiciously, the goat was absent. But I was ecstatic. I boarded, asked if it was going to my hotel, and was told that the bus would stop "near there." Hoo-ray.

My baggage occupied two seats, and I another. This is important because I'd later learn that the fare is by seat. Much later, though. Much, much later.

It turns out that the "City Hoppa" is an mzungu*-free form of transportation. All the other passengers were, shall we say, a little amused by my presence. The unbelievably circuitous route the bus took gave me opportunity to witness a fair portion of eastern Nairobi; I arrived an hour after departing the airport, despite the perhaps entertaining fact that Kenyatta airport lies but 40 kilometers from my hotel. There are a lot of bus stops in Nairobi.

Once I'd arrived at "near the Hilton," I was aided off the bus by a matronly mama mkubwa**. She was so entertained by my presence, she insisted on carrying the heaviest of my bags the three or so blocks from "near the Hilton" to the Hilton. She rocked!

After checking into my room -- oh, sweet Jesus, a real bed -- I flung the wide windows open and basked in the business of the street below. A million people were hurrying from one place to another, unaffected by the late hour or choking smog or insanely piloted cars or frenetic matatus***. I smiled, again, and took pictures.

I took a shower. By myself. I crapped. By myself. I kicked off my shoes (not boots, mind you) and landed with a muffled thud on my bed in which I'd eventually sleep. By myself.

Brilliant. My spirits could not have been higher... I thought. The next day, they would be.

* Mzungu (Wazungu): (n.) Whitey; Cracker; Culturally-unaware, probably British tourist.
** Mama Mkubwa (Mama Wakubwa): (n.) Big momma; Old mother; Grandmother.
*** Matatu (Matatu): (n.) Nothing I could write would do justice. Instead, read this.

Days Two through Five in short order. They get increasingly interesting, I promise.

Friday, August 3, 2007

...on my way HOME

Back in the States by Sunday... after having taken a little me-time in Kenya and Uganda. Mad trip report to follow after I've slept.

But here's a teaser: on the way from Kampala to Jinja, through the window I spotted a paperboard sign hastily stapled to a lightpost. "Marburg Confirmed in Kampala," was written in bold, black strokes. It's cool and all that I'm (we're) being warned, but... umm... a streetsign? Shouldn't there be more, uh, emphasis? I mean, Marburg Disease is not the kind of thing you want kept secret, y'know? Bleeding out of the eyes and all? Dropping dead because your insides have liquified??

Shit. I was eaten alive last night at the hostel. And now I'm on my way to whitewater raft the Nile. I wonder if the doxycillin I've been taking as a Malaria prophylactic is enough. How much Off do I have?