Fair Game

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I had a qualm in Africa

Toby looked around him warily. “This isn’t so bad,” he said.

They were standing in a tired and dishevelled group, the three of them, surrounded by a planeload of other tourists stretching and chattering excitedly. None looking, or smelling, particularly fresh.

“I expected it to be bedlam. More hustlers, more taxi touts, hotel touts, people jostling and shoving, trying to wrench my bag out of my hands.” He stood squarely holding his fists in front of him and shadowboxed ten imaginary opponents. His brown fringe flopped over his eyes and his smile widened into a grimace as he jiggled about, cheerfully throwing punches.

“This is hardly lively at all. In fact, I’m feeling relatively secure. I don’t know now why I was so apprehensive on the flight over here. To think I wasted all that Rescue Remedy.”

“Toby, you’re feeling moderately secure because we’re still in the baggage claims.” Fred waved a languid arm over towards the carousel. Fred was extremely tall, all his movements were languid.

“Ja, wouldn’t get too relaxed just yet. Protected by security here. Wait till we get out there.” James pointed through the customs gate, where a sea of eager faces awaited the new arrivals. “That,” he jabbed a freckled finger towards them, “is Nairobberi proper. Reckon you gonna find your touts out there. Plenty.”

Toby brushed his hair back into place and a worried frown returned to his expressive face. Fred watched the passengers who were already wheeling their luggage out into the throng. They were magnets, the touts all over them like iron filings. The heat was palpable and the passengers with large suitcases were red-faced and locked in the melee by the activity that shuffled them along, controlling their direction. He was happy that the more obviously affluent passengers were attracting the early attentions of the insalubrious characters. There was something to be said for sitting in cattle class and getting their baggage last. Not a lot, but something.

Toby took out a pack of mints and began to unroll one. A uniformed man with impossibly dark skin materialised next to him and said, “Sweet!” Toby offered the packet, which the man took and wandered off. Fred shook his head with disbelief.

Fred was pleased that they all had backpacks: an internationally recognised budget badge. Most of the touts would be flocking to those tourists who looked like they were booked on high-priced safaris.

He might have laughed at how some of them were dressed – safari suits with faux leopard-skin hatbands on their hats – only it was a bit too close to calling the kettle black. He had some of that outmoded colonial crap in his bag, which he regretted now. Mind you, he had been through a fair amount of stick for it already.

Last weekend in London, they had a final packing and plans meeting at Eleanor and his flat, and he had been forced to display his apparel. He was used to receiving flak for his pomposity from time to time, and he’d be damned if he was going to compromise his values for a bit of peer group ribbing. Fred had been born half a century too late, his friends frequently observed. Perhaps a century. There were times when even his father (a country squire if ever there was one) was astounded at his antiquated proclivities.

If Frederick Vaughan was going to Africa, he was going dressed like Livingstone, whether his travel companions liked it or not. He had packed the normal travel clobber too, but he was quietly yearning for the day when he could pull out his safari jacket and get away with it. Being six foot six, Fred was conspicuous, but he never stooped or gave the impression of feeling uncomfortable about his height. His dark aristocratic looks helped him carry off his loftiness. His nose was genetically selected to be looked down. He was an attractive man in a slightly gangly way, and while tall and angular at times, he moved with grace and poise. His curly hair was never short and neat, and rarely brushed. It had character, and was always slightly longer than his colleagues and peers would have been comfortable wearing theirs. It framed his warm face and brown eyes and provided a solid proportion for his mouth, which was wide and often smiling.

He would need some physiological acclimatisation before he donned any jackets though. It was so fiercely hot that he couldn’t imagine how Stanley et al. didn’t expire of heatstroke in all that heavy cotton long before the malaria, venereal disease and tribesmen’s spears got to them. And fat Papa Hemingway? Small wonder he drank like he did. He realised how very far removed he now was from the cooling September London weather and civility in which he had shopped for his khakis. They has seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now, in this noisy inferno, they were at the start of their trip, and eight weeks of travel beckoned.

“Is anyone coming to fetch us?” Toby peered hopefully among the masses for a sign with his name on it. “What kind of bullshit planning is this?”

Fred’s long-suffering expression masked his amusement and affection.

“Toby, Toby, Toby. I’m afraid we have to enter the fray and get stuck in. This is an overlander expedition, not a private safari. We’re adopting the intrepid approach remember.”

“Let’s revisit that. Just to remind me why we’re not on a private safari. It’s not like we can’t afford it. I am suddenly surprised that I got talked into this. We hate the great unwashed, don’t we? We’re snobs, for God’s sake; we seem to have forgotten that. You, of all people, Fred.”

“I love travel, I don’t care with whom or how,” Fred defended himself.

Toby shook his head slowly as he hauled his pristine backpack off the conveyor: “If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be boarding an overland truck with all manner of seedy backpackers, I’d have laughed myself to death. What are we doing here? I ask you with tears in my eyes.”

“Enough dramatics, Toby.” Fred held up three fingers and counted them off one by one: “A) You never got talked into this. You were fired and decided to come when you got drunk. B) This is the best way to see as much of Africa as possible in the short space of time we have available, and I mean really see it. And, C) if we had done a safari, it would have been a holiday, not an expedition. And an expensive holiday at that. This was my idea and I’m sticking to it. In fact, Toby, you’ve gate-crashed. It was originally supposed to be James and me, the brave explorers.

“Anyway, if we’d done this as a luxurious holiday, Eleanor would have insisted on coming,” Fred shrugged. “Think of it as the gap year we never had.”

“Wouldn’t meet any lovely young ladies on a smart safari either,” James pointed out. “Only bored German wives with eyes for the rangers. Now there’s a better chance of us singletons getting a bit of action, Toby, my man. Backpacker chicks, values left at home, all that freedom in their hair. Let’s get into the spirit of things. Leave your London fears behind. Let’s get out there. I’ll do the negotiating. All we have to do is get to our hotel. We’re meeting nearby tomorrow anyway to leave for ‘the expedition’, as Fred calls it.”

“OK, OK,” said Toby. “I’m just a bit frayed from the flight. You’re right, let’s take this one step at a time.”

“Now you talking. Always found that once you get to a backpackers’ hotel, you meet people going in your direction and people who’ve come from where you’re going. So you get all you need for travel companions and information in the same bar.” James was always ready to impart information. Generally he knew what he was on about, but even if he didn’t he was happy to venture an opinion. One thing he didn’t know was how to say, “I don’t know”.

James was eloquent, despite the incredible speed at which he spoke. It amazed fellow pub-goers and colleagues in meetings that he could get his thoughts in order with the unchecked flow of his delivery. With James, the opposite of talking wasn’t listening, it was waiting.

He loved discourse, especially if it meant he could gesticulate and point and move his arms in a way that would flex his extraordinarily well built and always prominent biceps. If there had ever been a T-shirt made in James’s size, he hadn’t found it. His tight offering in Nairobi was no different from anything he might wear to a Chelsea nightclub.

He continued, pointing at nothing in particular and glancing at his arm, “And local info is always passed on in these places. We’ll quickly find out how to keep ourselves from being mugged at the first corner. We mustn’t wander around outside the airport looking lost. Drawing a crowd. Asking for shit. You guys should wait here. I’ll sort out a taxi.”

“Happy to wait,” blurted Toby. Fred laughed and put his arm around his old friend’s shoulders, rubbing his chest with his free hand in a way that made Toby chuckle and gruffly push him away.

James walked out and was immediately surrounded by a number of men offering taxi services. “Of course, these guys will try to rip us off,” he had said. “I’ll bargain them down. So long as we specify a price, it won’t cost us that much in God’s own pound.” If James ever lacked confidence, he never showed it, and his jaw jutted out as he prepared himself for a challenging haggle session.

He was pleasantly surprised. After asking three different cab drivers the fare to the town centre, he had three quotes of 1,700 shillings.

“I’ll be back in a moment,” he said to the man whose manner pleased him the most. Rotund and mopping his shiny face, he had been smiling and not too pushy.

“I will wait for you,” the beaming driver had said, pushing his hands into the small of his back and leaning back to balance the great counterweight of his stomach. “You are very welcome. I will wait, no problem.”

“Seems like it’s a fair and open market out there, guys. The price was firmly fixed, only twelve quid, roughly.” He picked up his backpack and said to Toby, “Come on then, boss. It’s not too hostile. There’ll be worse to deal with once we arrive in town. Keep your wallet close to your lovely bosom.”

“You keep your eyes off my bosom,” muttered Toby as he bustled purposefully out into the airport concourse, wearing his backpack on his front so that he could clutch its contents to his chest. It was almost midday and the squalid darkness of the airport gave way to noisy white heat. Dust swirled around the minivans that squealed away from the curbs. The hot air was redolent with exhaust fumes and shouting as James led the way towards the cluster of beckoning drivers.

Their cab driver was still smiling and tried to help Fred with his bag. “Welcome to Kenya,” he said. “I am Japhet.”

“I’ll carry it, thanks. Pleased to meet you, Japhet.” Fred shook the hand destined for his bag.

“Sure, no problem. It’s no problem here. Hakuna matata.

“Can’t believe they still say that,” whispered Fred to James as they followed Japhet to his car. “Do you think anyone here has actually seen The Lion King? I went to Egypt once and every single tout there couldn’t stop saying ‘luvly jubbly’ the whole time, like they were born within earshot of the Bow Bells.”

James chuckled, “Same thing in Thailand. All of them offering you snake blood.”

“You like it here?” laughed Japhet in response.

“Yes,” said Fred. “Everybody seems very friendly.”

“What are you talking about? I’ve never seen so many shifty bastards in one place in my life.” Toby was walking behind James and was out of earshot of Japhet. He was clutching his pack even closer in a tight bear hug.

“Haven’t been to Jo’burg, Toby,” said James, speaking even faster and more volubly than normal in his visible excitement. “Be surprised if Nairobberi is half as bad as some of the places I spent time in back in the day. Don’t wanna act like the hard man, but this is pretty comfortable for me. Make sure you never let your stuff out of your sight. Most times, your stuff will be fine; other times, you take your eye off it for a second you’ll never see it again. Always someone watching you in a place like this. Or any place of wealth disparity. Just stay alert.” He almost skipped around them with suppressed energy.

“Have to laugh at people arriving here with Louis Vuitton luggage. Although they’re probably whisked off to high security resorts. Problem with being a backpacker is, even though you’re doing it on the cheap, you still have shitloads more in your possession than a lot of these people, and yet no access to security like the wealthy tourists.”

“Well, we’re backpackers with a lot of money, so surely we will get the best of both worlds.”

“Why don’t you shout that a bit louder, Toby? I don’t think that band of brigands across the street quite heard you,” growled Fred.

“Relax, both of you,” said James. “Look at it this way: we can better afford to be robbed than most backpackers, who have a limited budget of ten bucks a day. I don’t reckon we should be discussing, ummm, fiscal concerns in front of our, how to put it, cabriolet co-ordinator, as if he didn’t exist or wasn’t versed in the vernacular of the monarch. So let’s change the subject until we’re in town and have dispensed with the remuneration for conveyance services rendered before we vaunt our opulence any further. I feel sure that, were our non-impecunious position known, our freightage would be ascendant as our journey unfolded.

“Man,” he continued, “I wish I could speak Afrikaans to you guys, it would make it a lot easier to keep ourselves in tune.”

“Try,” said Toby. “I might understand it better than that Dickensian gibberish you just came up with.” He finally relinquished his bag to Japhet.

Japhet bundled their bags into the back of an old Toyota minibus, and padlocked the backdoor shut with two latches that had been lavishly welded onto the bodywork.

“It’s the little things,” said Fred, “that make a quality service.”

“Yes,” replied Japhet. “Sometimes these people can steal too much. It is better with these locks. Your bags, they are now safe.”

“I’m pleased to hear it.”

Once Toby, Fred and James had clambered into the passenger seats through the side door, Japhet slid it shut and locked them in with the same latch arrangement as he had used for the bags. Toby’s eyes widened, but he quelled the desire to question this nebulous safety measure. Japhet waddled round to the front, squeezed himself behind the wheel and they were on their way.

James felt a surge of joy to be in Africa again. It was like a thump in his chest. It was far from South Africa, but what the hell, it had the same dustiness, the same noisy clamour of informal business, the same hawkers selling single cigarettes, mobile phone chargers, coat hangers and a profusion of other shit that he couldn’t imagine anyone really wanting. He watched it all go by with a delighted smile on his cheeky face.

“Hey, Japhet,” he said suddenly. “Can we get some beers on our way into town?”

“You want beers?” he asked.

“Please, a few cold beers, just to ease the dust a little.”

“Holiday mode straight away, Jim?”

“Well, you know. This is Africa now. No opening times, closing times and all that shit. Lovely yummy beers, any time we like. And I like right now.”

“So do I,” said Toby. “I’m a little parched from anxiety,” he added.

“It’s no problem. You can have beer, no problem.”

James turned to Toby weakly fanning himself in the back seat and smiled. “What’s up, Tobes my boy, you not cool with this heat? You look hotter than a baboon spanking its monkey back there.”

“It’s my ample winter condition,” Toby responded with a smile. “It’s harder for the plus-sized gentleman to dissipate a heat load. I’m made for higher latitudes.”

James laughed, whacked Toby on the shoulder and returned to his enjoyment of the African cityscape. He thought that the streets of Nairobi were in parts better than the streets of a lot of other African cities. But only in parts. There were painted lines on the roads, very faded in some cases, and a few of the roads were major thoroughfares, cutting neatly through perfectly modern air-conditioned skyscrapers. As was always the case in these cities, modernity was juxtaposed with earthiness. Cattle grazed on the central divide of the motorway. Wide roads allowed more commotion. More chaos. The crush of matatus racing to move their customers to their destinations rushed and screeched around them, the ubiquitous and indistinguishable bass booms buffeting them from side to side.

“These taxi drivers are lunatics,” said Toby. “Look at how many passengers that guy has got stuffed into the back. And still he’s driving like he’s at Brands Hatch. Thank God I’m not in that death trap; I’d have more skid marks than a starting grid.”

“Drivers don’t own the matatus,” said James. “They’re under a lot of pressure to produce a return for the owners, so they fill them up, drive like lunatics, and are on the go twenty-four hours a day. Killing passengers like there’s no tomorrow. Still the best way of getting around for the locals. Feel sorry for them. If we weren’t going to be travelling in a huge truck, we’d have to use those guys to get from A to B. Short hops anyway. Busses for the long hauls. Even worse.”

“Suddenly this rattletrap truck is sounding like a good idea. The lesser of some pretty mega evils. Now why are we stopping here?”

“Here is beer,” said Japhet.

“Where?” asked James, his head swivelling eagerly as he pulled himself forward to get out.

“In there,” Japhet pointed into an old white colonial-looking building, the inside walls of which were so blackened with dirt and low lighting it looked as if the place had recently been gutted by fire. “It is a good bar.”

“I can’t go in there,” Toby pulled James back by the shoulder. “I’ll have a panic attack.”

“Probably fine, but it’s a bit of a baptism of fire for us.” James spoke up, “Japhet, we don’t want to stop for beer in a bar. We want to buy beer and drink it in the car while we drive to the hotel.”

“Oh, you want supermarket. That’s no problem, but the beer, it will not be cold.”

“Look James,” said Fred, “why don’t you just hold your horses for half an hour, and once our bags are safely stowed away, you can unwind on some old colonial veranda and start working yourself into a dreamy state of alcoholic bliss. I do think that we should get our priorities in order. Both now and for the rest of the trip. I like my beer too, but we can’t spend the whole trip chasing the next pint.”

“We can’t?”

“No, we can’t. You may have spent your whole life in Africa, but we haven’t, and there’s a lot I would like to do and see. We can’t just spend all our time seeking out the next seller of alcohol. I refuse.”

“OK, OK, OK. Point taken. Let’s go. I promise not to let my abiding love for the booze interfere with anything you want to do or see.”

Japhet, swivelled in his seat and looking back with his jolly smile, was clearly enjoying following this exchange. “There is much to do and see,” he beamed. “I will show you. How long you are here?”

“We’re going on an overlander, Japhet,” said Toby, clearly relieved not to have to travel East Africa in a minibus.

“That is good too. Which hotel you are in tonight?”

“The East African Gateway Hotel. Let’s go there now.”

“No problem, we are going.” He swung round in his seat and, hooting and flailing his arm out the window, plunged into the flow of scrumming traffic.

Fred stood with his hands on his hips, leaning back to take in the façade of the building, clearly once a thing of beauty and grandeur. Now, the decrepit hotel was hemmed in by two hideous seventies-style concrete structures, which suggested that some serious shilling had changed hands down at the town planning department. The once stately hotel looked like it was being ushered out of town by two deadpan security guards. It was sad and beaten by time. Although it was in a side road at the centre of town, the constant hooting and revving of matatu engines from the main road swirled in with the dust. Litter fluttered around the alley and gathered in the gutter at Fred’s feet.

“The Gateway, to East Africa? Not much to look at, is it?”

“It’s luxury, man. As luxurious as we’ll be getting.” James stood beside him in contemplation. “Until Vic Falls.”

Toby was helping Japhet to unpack the bags: “It’s an oasis. I’m just glad to be out of the ever watchful gazes at the airport. I didn’t enjoy being the centrepiece of an all-you-can-steal buffet.”

“OK, Japhet, thank you for the lift,” said Fred. “What do we owe you?”

“One thousand seven hundred shillings.”

“Here’s two thousand.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much. Do you want to go for beer now?”

“I think we’ll just stay here for a while.”

“OK, I will come and fetch you later. We can go for some beer.”

“Well, we’ll want to stay close by here though.”

“Yes, close by here. I know a good place.”

“OK, Japhet. You can meet us here, in this hotel bar, for some beers, at six o’ clock. Then we’ll decide.”

Beaming once again, Japhet eased himself back into his cab, squealed a U-turn in the quiet alley and roared back into the main road with a sustained blast of farewell hooting. Fred wandered back over to James, putting his wallet back in his pocket.

“What did you do that for?” James blurted. “Now we’ll have this dude hanging around with us all night. And, who knows, he may want to take us somewhere to relieve us of our possessions.”

“Well, he wasn’t taking no for an answer, James. Was he? So what was I supposed to do? Bugger wasn’t going away. And he didn’t start squeezing us for more cab fare or anything, so I’ve little reason to doubt his integrity.”

“He’s just building up our trust before he fleeces us.”

Toby joined them. “Jim, Fred. Look here. He’s quite a nice guy. I liked him. We can buy him one or two beers, I’m sure that’s all he wants, and then send him on his merry way. But we have to get into the swing of things a bit. This is what travel is all about. We just need to be sensible, that’s all. Not constantly hostile. It’s a balance.”

“Hello, Mr Wordly-wise,” said James, cleaning out his ear with a pinkie. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing.”

Toby smiled, “For all my paranoia, I think we should live a little.” He was starting to relax and enjoy himself. “We can leave our valuables in the safe, and if we end up buying the guy a few beers, so what? They won’t be costing us three quid a pop here, I can assure you. Think of all those wankers from work and clients you blow cash on in the City wine bars. It’s not like he’s going to order Veuve, because there won’t be any.”

“Good point, Tobes.”

“I’d much rather be buying beers for Japhet. Not least, because he has the same embonpoint as me.” Toby patted his belly. “Looks like he enjoys his beer. And I’m thirsty now too.”

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