Archive for the ‘wrinkles’ Category

The Long Way Home

December 3, 2007


Travelling by air ought, given the crow’s flight abbreviation it affords not to mention the speed, be swifter than journeying by road.  Unless – of course – you live in Africa and especially – of course – if you have the misfortune not to have any domestic commercial aviation choice other than the not at all precise Precision Air.

9am Sunday: depart from host’s house in Arusha bound for the airport, Hat and I anticipate a long day: a total of four hours flying and a few necessary hours in transit, but we expect to be home in time for tea (Hat) and a cold beer (me).

11am Sunday: our flight, due to leave now, is delayed. We only know this because there are no planes on the apron outside the terminal, not because any Precision ground staff has enlightened us thus. I approach one.

Where’s our plane, I ask.

It’s coming.

So is Christmas. Literally. And quite possibly sooner, given Precision’s reputation.

When? I press.

The lady to whom I am addressing my not unreasonable question scowls.

I don’t know.

Could you find out do you think?

She slopes off, she doesn’t pick her feet up so her shoes slap the floor crossly.

Shortly afterwards there’s an announcement over the tannoy.

Our flight is delayed.

No! Who’d have thought?

We can expect to depart at 12.10.

At 12.10 there is still no plane on the runway. Just a few birds. And some abandoned luggage.

I approach the grumpily slip-slopping airline rep again:

Our plane? I enquire sweetly.

It’s coming, she says, and focuses her gaze beyond me to distant high heavens, whether because she hopes to see it or in an effort to pretend I’m not there, I can’t tell.

So I do the same. I can’t see a thing. Only a big blue empty sky.

Shortly after half twelve a plane does actually appear. It has arrived from Nairobi and is bound for Mwanza on Lake Victoria. Ordinarily Mwanza passengers would remain on board and continue with their journey once Nairobi passengers had disembarked.

Instead Precision hijacks its own plane and everybody on it, including the poor passengers who thought they were safely on their way to Mwanza, gets off. I want to feel sorry for them. But having sat through an almost two hour delay myself I uncharitably presume its somebody else’s turn to pick up Precision’s considerable slack.

We dash to the vacated plane as soon as the gate is open and precisely (the only precision I encountered in more than 30 hours) two hours after we should have departed, we take off bound for Zanzibar and Dar.

By the time we reach Zanzibar I am getting anxious we might not make our connection for the Outpost and articulate my concerns to the air steward who similarly articulates to somebody else and so on until we have a game of Chinese whispers circulating the plane until for all I know the message that reaches Dar – or doesn’t given the airline’s misnomer – might be, ‘there is a pink elephant on board who wants to go shopping in Doha’. (The elephant would – I discovered later – have had more chance).

We finally get to Dar, two hours late, and Hat and I hurtle through the airport intent on making our flight home. We endure our 12th security check of the day. For the 12th time I am asked to remove the armful of silver bangles which I have worn for so long I don’t think I could get them off even if I tried (and I don’t anymore). And for the 12th time the mace spray in my handbag is ignored.

We congratulate ourselves on making the departure lounge before they call our flight (but in time to hear them making a final boarding announcement for Doha – lucky elephant). The time of our 3.15 flight comes and goes. Ominously I can see no indication of a flight to the Outpost on the Departures board. Finally I am approached by another of less than accurate Precision’s ground staff: ‘Your flight has been cancelled’, she tells me, ‘until tomorrow’, she adds helpfully.

This is the point when you can either cry, scream, stamp your feet, throw a hissy fit of note, play at being a Diva Extraordinaire or – if you’ve lived in Tanzania for as long as I have and had the misfortune to be exposed to Presicion’s erratic timing as often as I have – meekly accept your fate whilst swearing under your breath. As I do.

The few other unfortunates who’d optimistically hoped to get home that day are rounded up and hotel and taxi arrangements made. We are told to report for a flight at 6am the following morning. As we leave, however, plans are changed: not 6am but 7.30 we are told, for a 9am flight.

I don’t like the look of the hotel when we arrive. And I don’t like the sound of the disco blaring next door. I decide Hat and I will manipulate a bad experience into a better one. I decide we will find a nice hotel with a pool so that we can swim off our disappointment and our frustration. I decide to commandeer the services of a cab driver and make him trail around Dar but what I fail to remember – it’s already been a long day and I missed lunch so my brain’s a little addled – is that I have next to no cash and my credit card, courtesy of three weeks playing truant and Christmas shopping, is maxed out.

Two hours of an enforced insider’s guide to the less salubrious hotels of the city and I’m back where I started, in the hotel the airline handpicked for us. Hat and I drag our five pieces of baggage in and I – a little shamefacedly – admit I do need a room at Precision’s expense. I also need a beer. At Precision’s expense. And Hat needs a chicken curry. And then we both need a shower and bed. What we don’t need, but get anyway, is a deafening disco outside our room until the wee hours.

We’re up by 6 the next morning – this morning – ready to make our way back to the airport for our 9am flight.

Until we get downstairs to the hotel lobby and are told that in fact our flight isn’t until half past one.

Now I’m cross. Really cross. I call the airline to demand an explanation of the delay.

It’s not a delay apparently. It’s re-scheduling I am told.

Go back to your room suggests the hotel reception, less out of concern for us than concern for fellow hotel residents who might be put off by dawn tirade.

Hat and I slink off. Hat orders a chicken sandwich for breakfast. From room service.

You pay extra for room service she tells me worriedly as she puts the phone down.

Good, I say, Precision’s paying: let’s order tea too. And juice.

Back in the airport now and it’s almost midday.  Our flight home should be leaving in a little under two hours. We’ll see. At this point we have been travelling for 27 hours. It would have taken us just nine to drive home.

So much for the speed of flight. We really have taken the long way round. Next time – all the next times, in fact – its by road. Hat agrees.

PS 4.00 pm. Monday: We are home. It took us 31 hours door to door.


What I will miss and what I won’t

May 9, 2007

When I move to the Outpost, my big kids will have to go to boarding school. I will miss dreadfully the seamlessness of their presence, the predictability of their return every night and the fact it is only ever a few hours away. I will miss their banter, their laughter, their reminder that I am still needed – even if it seems only at times to fill tummies, snack boxes and washing machine. I will miss seeing their sleeping forms at night when I check on them (which I still do even though they are 15 and 13 respectively). And I will miss marvelling at how sleep wipes from their faces the angst of adolescence so that they slumber semi-smiling.

I will not miss the laundry they generate, the fights they have for absolutely no reason other than to apparently hear the sound of their own voices and the daily slog to school.

I will miss my friends. My confidantes do not number many (an anomaly considering I spill my guts in cyberspace!), but they are precious. I have leaned hard on them in recent months; they’ve listened to me cry when I had to and made me laugh when I needed to. They have had the children to stay so that during this forced separation, Anthony and I can abbreviate the distance between us.

I will not miss the gossip, the one-upmanship and the small-town politics that come with almost-suburban African living. I will not miss that – despite living in one of the most poverty stricken regions of the world – it still apparently matters what you look like, how fat/thin you are, how well decorated your home is, how designer clad your children are and how artistically you have scattered cushions. No. I will miss none of that. I anticipate with relish the freedom that will attend bush living so that I can wear what I want, when I want and nobody will notice that my eyebrows need tweezing or that it is too long since I did anything about disguising the grey in my hair.

I will miss seeing my mountains, Kilimanjaro and Meru. I will miss watching how their faces change over the year and across the seasons so that in the wet and the winter they are shrouded with grey blankets which they are only warm enough to toss aside come mid afternoon when they coyly – and briefly – emerge. I will miss that, in the summer, Meru’s peak pierces an azure blue sky with such sharpness you wonder the colour does not leak out. And I will miss the plum pudding iced sugar topping of Kili. In the 16 years I have lived within view of Kilimanjaro I have never stopped marvelling at its beautiful incongruity, its sudden, majestic rise from arid plain to snow capped peak: no wonder the earliest explorers rubbed their eyes in disbelief, no wonder the Africans once believed it was capped with silver which they tried to gather but which disappointingly ran through their fingers as they descended the mountain.

I will not miss the urban sprawl that is eating the region up, spilling, ugly, from town centres and raping once virgin Africa so that blankets of forest and carpets of savannah are discarded in place of hotly glinting corrugated iron sheets and fences adorned with blue plastic bags. I will not miss daily evidence that trees are being lopped down with abandon, I will not miss noticing that Kilimanjaro’s snows recede a little more each year because it wasn’t designed to be tramped up by over 20,000 people every year. I will not miss knowing it’s one of the continents biggest rubbish dumps.

I will miss the farm. I will miss my walks. I will miss noticing the birds: comically fat and ungainly guinea fowl, elegant beaked yellow bill storks, bejeweled kingfishers, vociferous, argumentative weavers.

But I will not miss the attendant ache as I witness its demise. I will not miss the tight chested anxiety that has plagued me almost every day for the past six years because our security was so tenuous, our futures so uncertain.

I will miss my home, the house that we built from a barn with rafters a hundred years old and hard as nails. I will miss its generous proportions, its wide verandah so that when I walked up to it, it was like falling into the arms of a friend. I will miss every familiar contour of its shape, the sounds it makes at night, like now, small sighs or slams which you can pinpoint to precisely the right door.

But I will not miss waking every day and wondering how much longer we can live here.

I will miss the familiarity of a place I have lived in and loved.

But I relish the prospect of a new adventure. Perhaps that’s what’s keeps us young – new adventures – not Botox?

Arm-twisting Africa Style

March 25, 2007

Friday 23rd – in the evening

If I thought the morning started badly, the day got considerably worse.

Attempting to overcome fact I don’t look a bit like stunner daughter and trying to reconcile self to unwelcome ageing process which means wrinkles and saggy bottom, in contrast to daughter’s unlined complexion and pert derriere, I am sulking upstairs with book.

A car appears in the drive. Afraid of going out of the house again today without a bag over my head, I insist husband Anthony tends to the visitors.

Who happen, as luck would have it, to be a couple of Labour Union officials and assorted uniformed policemen. They have come armed with a warrant for Anthony’s arrest. The crowd (dodgy, as it transpired) that we worked for until the end of last year has not paid farm laborers for months. That Anthony was once an employee and unsuspecting of looming trouble (unlike remaining management and the financial controller who – we subsequently discover – have gone into hiding) means he’s in the wrong place (still squatting on the farm, hanging out in the hope of recouping some of our own unpaid salary) at the wrong time. The Fall Guy.

Arresting innocents at 5pm on a Friday afternoon is a popular intimidation tactic here: nobody wants to spend a weekend in the cells. Problem is – and unluckily for the hundreds of poor Africans who haven’t been paid for weeks – ex employers, Americans and South Africans doing their grubby African deals from the safety of far-flung addresses where the local cops can’t touch them, couldn’t care less if Anthony rots in jail. As an arm twisting exercise, this is a waste of time.

A fairly unpleasant six hours ensues. As Anthony is carted off to the local police station, I field three distraught children who are convinced their father is about to be given a life sentence. I try to secure the necessary for bail as well as some legal representation. We buy some time when local cop shop admits to their cells being full; Anthony must be escorted to the central police station in town by which time I have availed of the services of a lawyer who is prepared to take on a case at 5.45 on a Friday evening.

By night fall we are back in the village police station where we started, bail has been posted (Anthony’s British passport surrendered and a substantial bribe paid: bail isn’t enough: we need to lubricate the justice procedure Africa fashion).

By ten we are home – having retrieved tired children with tear-stained faced – and I am collecting evidence for the lawyer to prove Anthony has not worked for the company in question since last year. And the reason he resigned was because people weren’t getting paid.

That I look really, really old and really, really tired no longer matters: Anthony isn’t in a cell somewhere and my babies are safe.

We’re in court Monday, if this farcical case isn’t thrown out before then.

The downsides of beautiful daughters

March 25, 2007

Friday 23rd – in the morning

End of term, hooray! Means that for the next two weeks I do not have to get out of bed at ungodly hour of 6am and stub toes en route to kitchen, because I cannot see the step I have stubbed it on every morning for the past five years as sun not up and power not on. School holidays means I can drink coffee in bed whilst I read and my toe has a chance to mend.

Particularly exhausted this end of term since last week included, in no particular order, three evenings of school production of Grease (Amelia was Frenchie which, she insisted, necessitated having blonde highlights which means she now has a head of hair her mates would die for whilst their mothers regard me with obvious disdain for I have indulged my 13 year old daughter with expensive hair treatment); a swimming gala (Hattie); Parent/teacher meetings to discuss success or otherwise of children’s performance this term (I shall not reveal what was said about own trio but I will comment on how diplomatic I think teachers are: imagine trying to present parents with the fact their child is thick beyond hope without offending?); a dentist appointment for all three and inevitable twice daily school runs, most of it on dirt roads dodging chickens, goats, cyclists, pedestrians who are clearly deaf or blind for can neither see nor hear approaching car and – obviously – potholes you could lose your car in.

Is it any wonder, then, that I get confused about school run on this – the last morning of the term. Means I am forced to beg, with some embarrassment, for a lift for kids from a neighbour whom I do not know well and who has never met my children.

As I bundle kids into her car she comments ‘how beautiful’ Amelia is. But she doesn’t just comment the once. No. She asks about three times whether I’m sure Amelia is actually my daughter. I’d like to think that because she’s foreign, and English not her first language, she has trouble understanding my response, in the affirmative, the first time that, yes, believe it or not, the beauty I have just parked on her back seat is – in fact – spawn of harried, lined, old bat who is now madly nodding and gritting her teeth (the few she has left in her really ancient, ugly head) bundling children crossly into car.

If I had had as much sleep as Amelia in recent weeks and if I’d had enough money to indulge self in same expensive hair treatments (rather than sporting a high tide mark where greying roots show through 3 month old highlights) my apperance might at least bear passing resemblance to that of my daughter and silly woman in front of car my daughter is now sitting smugly in would shut her mouth, drag her chin off the floor and stop saying, stupidly, ‘Really? Your daughter hey? Beautiful, no?’