I had a hangover, and a significant hangover it was. I certainly knew better than to drink so much on long flights, but back in New York, where this journey had begun, it had seemed ‘just the thing.’ But two days later, at the unholy hour of six in the morning, it was painfully clear to me that there had been some flaws in that reasoning. Stumbling off the plane in Nairobi, I was more than sorry for my intemperance, I was truly repentant. Gathering up my hand luggage, I made sweeping promises to whatever deity might be listening:
"I promise I will never drink again, if I can just get through this day."
I had a reasonable, albeit generic, excuse for all that alcohol: nerves. I had waited months for this day to arrive and I was thrilled about moving to Africa, but I was also scared to death. All that summer I had managed to keep the major goblins at bay by sustaining a frenetic activity level. Or simply sticking my head in the sand. Avoidance was something I had developed some real expertise in that year. I had also taken full advantage of the attention my proposed new life had received. All those raised eyebrows were, at the very least, diverting. I had even managed to keep my sense of humor when confronted with the endless warnings about Death and Disease and The Dangers that Lurk in Far Away Places, that people kept wagging in my face. I waved them all aside. I announced that there was nothing to worry about because "I had a fah-rm in Ah-frica," doing my impression of Meryl Streep doing her impression of Karen Blixen.
But there comes a time when all that packing, planning and heavy denial can no longer hold up against the onslaught of reality. One day "Oh, Golly, Gee whiz! Isn’t this just thrilling?" simply curdled into " Oh my God, what the hell am I doing?"
As the day of my actual departure approached, those sharp little edges of dread were getting ever sharper. Everyday, the gap between my clever remarks and the reality of a year alone in Africa grew wider. And on the morning of my flight, I woke up, no longer sassy, witty and brave, but scared to death and sick to my stomach. Not only did I not want to go, but I had no idea what had inspired me to consider such a hair brained stunt to begin with.
Once at Kennedy Airport, I started to feel marginally better. As the airplane doors locked behind me, having no way out felt oddly soothing. I am sure it was akin to the calm a condemned man must feel, trudging towards the gallows, but I was grateful for even that. Thus the champagne; it seemed appropriately celebratory. Never a person to have just one glass of champagne when two are clearly better, I kept these festivities going for the entire trip. British Air kept pouring and I kept celebrating. Never really drunk, but never completely sober either, I was jolly and slightly numb for the two days it takes to get from New York City to Kenya.
When I finally arrived in Nairobi, the combined effects of jet lag, no sleep, fifteen hours of air travel, and an approaching nervous breakdown, all joined hands and slammed into all that champagne. This crashing headache then met up with the problem with the air in Kenya. Nairobi sits at five thousand five hundred feet above sea level and the oxygen deprivation at that altitude renders the hardiest of souls light-headed, or just mildly stupid, for days. As that day was just barely beginning, my already precarious situation was going down hill, rapidly.
The next big hurdle to contend with was Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. JKI has to be one of the top ten airports in the world that are best avoided. It has been highly renovated in the recent past and is now marginally better, but back in 1987 it was cold, dark, badly designed, and inhospitable. Nothing more than a vast, decaying hangar, it was a triumph of peeling paint, patchy linoleum, flickering florescent lighting, and bureaucratic hassles. I already knew I was in for at least two very unhappy hours from the time I left the plane until I retrieved my luggage, if it weren’t already on its way to Johannesburg.
Clearing passport control always took awhile. There were never enough officials to deal with the hundreds of arriving passengers, and those that were around were moving slowly. "There is no hurry in Africa," I repeated to myself as I waited in line. That was one of the many little sayings I had picked up in my travels and used to quote to my friends back in New York. It was meant to make me sound insouciant while, at the same time, the savvy world traveler. It was not, on that particular morning, having the desired effect.
Once through passport control, I descended a steeply pitched staircase to arrive in the main hall. There I stood watching the ancient conveyor belt rumble around in circles, hoping to spot my luggage. I had more than enough time to address the one question that kept going through my mind, "Why, Melinda? Why did you do this?"
Wasn’t it just a few years ago that I was the happy, divorced mother of a sweet little, eleven -year old boy, living in New York? I had a job in the Off Broadway theater. I had friends and family. I had a nice boyfriend. How did I end up here, sick, tired, scared, and alone, and about to set up residence in some Third World country? How did I get here?
I first traveled to Africa with my son, Jake, in 1985 on a photographic safari. I had always longed to go to Africa, and was even booked to do so soon after Jake’s birth. While I was complaining my way through the last few months of my pregnancy, my mother, in her usual escapist approach to personal problems, had planned just such a safari. As soon the new baby could spare me, my husband, David, and I were to join her and my future stepfather (Numero Tres) for a month in Africa. David was taken ill a week before we were to depart and when our scheduled flight to Africa was flying over the Sahara, I was home with a new baby and David was in surgery having fifteen inches of his intestines removed. Ever since then, I had carried a kind of personal IOU in my heart. Going to Africa always loomed large.
When, in 1985, long since single, I decided that Jake and I would finally make this journey, the excitement was palpable. And it came at a point in my mother’s battle with cancer when a break was much needed. There had been a huge family fracas that Thanksgiving and, although far from unusual, it had convinced my mother that gathering her children around her sickbed was not such a good idea. There had been a nasty battle of words and, with no guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again at Christmas, she sent me and my three brothers packing.
Jake and I went to Africa, and naturally enough, had a wonderful time. I think everyone who goes on safari in Kenya has a wonderful time, it is a very special place. But I felt that something more significant had occurred. Granted, almost anyone in my situation, coming from two and a half years in cancer wards, would have appreciated the freedom and wide open spaces of a place as profoundly beautiful as Kenya, but I believed it was more than that. I was convinced that I had just found the one place in the world where I truly belonged. When Jake and I left Nairobi after two weeks there, I cried for fifteen hours straight, all the way back to New York. There was certainly some regret about going back to what I knew I would be facing at my mother’s bedside. But it felt exactly the way it feels to leave your new lover behind, just a bit harder to explain.
Most of my friends felt that that was precisely the problem; that I had left my new lover behind. They felt that this love sick state had less to do with leaving Africa and more to do with leaving young William Winter, our handsome young safari guide. It was true, to some degree. While I was busy living out my fantasies of being Karen Blixen, Billy had done a fair imitation of Denys Finch-Hatton. Our affair, although brief, had done nothing to diminish the pleasures of an African night.
Billy was bright, charming, wonderful company and, to me, utterly unique. Born and raised in Kenya, he had all the macho trappings of a "man of the bush," coupled with a great sensitivity. He could strip down his Range Rover in half an hour or lead me through the bush in search of rhino tracks in the dirt or lions in the grass. We would sit on a bluff at sunset looking out over the plains while he pointed out the beauty of a certain flower. He taught me to listen to the sounds of the night, to look for shapes in the underbrush, and to smell the rain coming, things I had never even thought about before. He took me to places he knew to be special, and introduced me to a country more beautiful than I had ever imagined. His being fourteen years my junior and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Mel Gibson didn’t hurt either. It had all been very intoxicating.
But if Billy was very young, I was not. At thirty -eight, I knew enough to recognize the effects that campfires, handsome young men, and moonlight can have on ones better judgment. It was not totally sensible to throw away my entire life and dash off to Africa to chase some young thing around the thorn trees. I probably was in love with Billy, but my desire to move to Africa went deeper than that.
Although my mother’s death, six months later, was more or less expected, I was utterly stunned by the loss of her. And even more stunned by my brothers lawsuit. For months, I could not pull myself together. I had been cut adrift. The previous three years had been consumed with caring for my mother, living almost every day with my heart in my throat. There had been frenzied dashes to emergency rooms, endless chemotherapy traumas, and countless medical horrors played out in as many hospital rooms. For three years, that had been my life. I had lived on hope, high drama, and adrenaline, while every day growing closer to a mother who, up until then, had never quite approved of me. I had become all too used to both the horrible drama of it and a newfound closeness with my mother. Then she was gone. And there was nothing. But an ugly legal battle with my three brothers.
Rearranging what used to be my life in New York held no special appeal and I had no real life left in New York anyway. I had been out of that loop more than I had been in it for three years and New York City is unforgiving in that way. I had long since packed in my love life, my social life, and my business life. Even Jake was no longer there. He had been in boarding school for over a year so that I could be with my mother full time. He was doing well, was happy, and it made no sense to bring him back to New York City just to give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. All of the tethers of my old life had been cut; there was nothing holding me anymore. Knowing that added to my sadness, but it had an unexpected side effect. Being so unattached gave me a new kind of freedom.
For years, I had been needed and totally responsible for my mother. Now I was neither. I could slip out the back door without many people either noticing or being too greatly affected by my absence. And I could get away from the confrontation that was looming on the horizon. It was one of those windows in time when there was no good reason to stay and one very good reason to go. And the freedom to do just that. I had the chance to run away, always a strong desire in times of pain, and I took it.
Was it brave? Not really. My sense of survival, combined with a good case of shell shock, were far greater players than real bravery. Was it selfish? Probably. I thought more about what I needed than I did about how this would affect anyone else, most particularly Jake. He and I talked about it a great deal and he was enthusiastic about the chance to visit me on his vacations, but neither of us knew just how far away I really would be. And it was "only for a year," after all. Was it blind? Absolutely. I thought very little about what I was heading into, only that I needed to go. Many times, I heard "You can’t run away from your problems." Well, I was going to make a damn good effort to run away from mine. I was stubborn, determined, and conveniently myopic. I had the bit in my teeth and I was going to go. Frankly, I would have gone to China or Antarctica had I had a few friends there. I consider it pure serendipity that I had been to Africa and had met Billy. It gave me a wonderful place to run to.
After my mother died, I made several more trips to Kenya. I was going back because I loved it, but also to see if it would still hold me in its thrall. It did. With each safari I was more convinced that Africa was where I wanted to be. Even after Billy and I settled into a far more sensible friendship, I was still obsessed with Africa. There is an expression: "Once you have Africa in your blood...." Well, I sure had it in mine and in March of ‘87, I decided to make the leap. To live there. Although my friends understood my desire to run away, they were not as convinced as I, that this New York City girl "belonged" in Africa. They pointed out that I was under an enormous amount of stress and that this was not a particularly good time to be making such large decisions. I listened, or pretended to, but I could not be deterred. I did allow myself to be talked out of selling my co-op on Riverside Drive and unloading everything I owned on the Salvation Army. I settled on renting a house in Nairobi for a year. Once the decision to go had been made, things moved along quite rapidly. All of a sudden, or so it felt that terribly hung-over morning in July, there I was, in Ah-frica.
Having finally collected all my bags, I headed for the Customs desk. I was trying to keep a low profile, always a good idea in foreign lands, but I was far from successful. I had with me, along with the usual luggage, five large duffel bags. Why so much gear? I had brought all my household goods with me. The house that I had rented, or more correctly, had been rented for me by Billy’s parents, Bill SR and Barbara Winter, although technically a "furnished rental," was coming to me without any manner of household appurtenances. I thought this quite inconvenient, but as the owner was Daniel Arap Moi, the President of Kenya, I chose not to make too big a fuss. The President had many houses, (as many as he liked, I should imagine,) and this was not an unusual situation for him, but it was for me. Another reason for going through with this domestic arrangement was the fact that I had already paid the entire years rent in advance. By the time I found out that I had to purchase every can opener, the check had cleared.
Barbara and Bill had advised me to bring as much as I could with me. The quality of household goods in Kenya is decidedly inferior and far more expensive than what I could purchase in the States. I did as I was told. I was carrying bed linens for two queen sized and two twin beds. I had sheets and duvets and mattress covers. I brought all the blankets and bath towels for the bathrooms. I had bath mats. Not only was it bulky, but it weighed a considerable amount and, piled on to the ancient luggage cart at JKI, it was all but unmovable. To make this scene all the more ridiculous, my leather soled shoes kept slipping out from under me every time I tried to move this tonnage along. I felt like one of the Three Stooges. "Moe, Larry and Curly Go On Safari." Whenever I did manage to achieve any traction one of the four decrepit wheels would invariably slip into a divot in the linoleum and everything would tumble to the floor. The cart was careening out of control and about to tip over for the third time when I finally made it up to the Customs desk.
I handed the man my passport and currency form and smiled as broadly as I could.
"Jambo, Mama," he greeted me.
I was being obsequious, bwana is an old colonial term for master, but I did not want those bags opened and was willing to try anything. It was one more lengthy procedure I didn’t want to face and I had real contraband stashed among my linens. I had with me a clock radio, a small typewriter, a cassette player, and two rechargeable flashlights. Such goodies were not allowed into Kenya without paying a significant duty, usually 200% of whatever arbitrary value the Customs chap decides to slap on. It can be a huge bother getting around this. I later learned how to bribe my way out of these situations, finding that if I talked very loud and fast, while pressing a few hundred shillings into the man’s hand, I would be waved on through. The combination of attracting attention, creating confusion and money always worked. But back in ’87, I thought everything was just as it is in the USA and who would even consider bribing a U.S. Customs officer? I also had no Kenyan currency on me and, nor had I acquired the bravado or perfected the sleight of hand these transactions require. I was counting on the man’s good will.
"How long will you be staying in Kenya?"
"Oh, just two weeks."
I was hoping that I could pass myself off as the average tourist, in Kenya for the standard two-week safari. Maybe he would consider me a lousy packer and a spoiled American and let it go at that?
"What have you brought for your friends here?" He had spotted the previous Kenya Entry Visas in my passport. No one returned to Kenya without presents for their friends. So many things could not be purchased that to return from abroad without tapes and books and new cassette decks was unthinkable.
"Nothing, mzee. (an elder person) I have nothing. But
I am choka sana. (very tired). Kabissa. (Truly) I made a face and slouched dramatically over my luggage cart.
"Safari kubwa, bwana. Mimi choka sana." (It was a long trip. I am very tired.)
He didn’t overreact to my sudden linguistic skills, but I had apparently aroused his pity. Thank God for the African’s infinite sympathy for conditions they consider only a white man’s problem, like jet lag. A great majority of the Africans never get on a train, let alone an airplane. It made perfect sense that such a preposterous journey, half way around the world in a metal box, would make anyone, at the very least, tired.
"Pole Mama. Choka sana. Pole." (Sorry, very tired. So sorry.) He stamped my passport and with a look of great concern, handed it back to me.
"Asante sana," (Thank you very much) I gasped out, my health failing by the minute. I took my passport and limped away.
As Billy was off leading a safari, Bill SR and Barbara were outside the gates to greet me. They piled me and all my luggage into their Land Cruiser and off we went. We were bound for Karen, the suburb that lies twelve kilometers to the southwest of Nairobi and where I was to be living for the next year. As we drove from the airport past the thorn trees and the occasional giraffe that poked its head out of Nairobi National Park, I could smell that familiar scent that always made my pulse quicken. The air at that altitude is wonderfully clear and thin and smells of wood smoke and lush vegetation. Even in Nairobi, with diesel fuel belching out of buses that never get inspected, and masses of humanity everywhere, there is something inexplicably sweet about the air. At that early hour, the streets were already teeming with the thousands of Africans who walk into Nairobi proper to work each day, and the traffic was beginning to back up. We drove past Wilson, the smaller commuter airport, past the main gates to the National Park, and out the Langata Road towards Karen.