Follow a call. A call to what? The wild? But wild is different to everyone isn’t it? What may feel wild to me could be perfectly normal to someone else and vice versa. My norm is vancouver. A comfortable, affluent and buzzing place. A place that is full of opposites like glass towers and ceder giants, extreme wealth and the homeless, the depth of the ocean and height of the North shore mountains. Opposites can be seen and felt. I think the opposites we experience help us to know what feels close and what feels far away. What feels wild and what feels calm.
When I thought of Africa I thought it was very different to my norm. It felt like a real adventure to me. A place that had deadly snakes and man eating lions. But a place I still wanted to explore and experience.
Before we left, people warned, “You’ll get culture shock you know.” I nodded and then ignored it. I didn’t want to listen to the negativity. I didn’t want the harsh stories of others to infect my experience.
When we arrived I remember getting a rash or was it hives? I don’t know. But my skin cried out. “Where are we?”
Right away there was a whirlwind of difference. Or was it newness?
It felt a bit like a roller coaster. I felt exhilarated, hyper aware and a little bit queasy.
When I think back, the early parts of our trip were actually quite silly. like buying rice with stones in them, or Joe going for a run in the streets of Nairobi and getting a lung full of exhaust, or the travel belt that had a secret zippered pouch that kept money safe but made you feel like a pervert every time you had to pay for something.
These are the moments of “otherness” during our early days.
Did I have culture shock? perhaps but not in a horrible way. In a more mind opening way.
We lived in Nairobi with Mike, a dear Kenyan friend and his family. Then we went to Uganda to volunteer for the Ugandan Rugby Union. Joe helped coach the men’s team and I was assigned to a local elementary school teaching grade 5. We soon fit into our roles and began meeting people and making friends. I was pleasantly surprised by how warmly we were welcomed into the community. Rugby is a great sport for building community.
Time marched on and we really enjoyed the rural life in Jinja Uganda. Christmas rolled around quite quickly and we were kindly invited to have Christmas with Mike’s family in a rural village in Ugunja Kenya. We arrived after a long and chaotic bus ride.
Ugnuja is a rural village on its way to the much bigger town of Kisumu. Kisumu is near to Kakamega, Kenya’s last remaining rainforest. It is a wild place, with rock pythons and puff adders and other deadly creatures. I wanted to visit Kakamega because in the fantasy novel I was writing it is set in a rainforest. I was inspired by the landscape and the people there. So I convinced Joe that it was crucial we visit for writing and research purposes. Joe wasn’t too sure (as he loathes snakes) but I somehow convinced him it was a great idea.
The morning we were supposed to leave. Mike’s family invited us to a traditional wedding, which we cordially accepted. The trip to Kakamega would be aproximately 7 hours. It gets dark at 7 pm every night in Africa.
The wedding went on and on and before we knew it is was mid day. However, I knew that if we didn’t go that day we probably would not make it there because we were due to return to Uganda in a couple days. I had to go! I could not leave Africa without having going to the African Rainforest. So we hustled and tried to make up for lost time.
Mike arranged for us to catch a bus and he spoke Swahili to the driver. The he said to me, “I’ve paid.” We hopped into the matatu (a mini van crammed with about 15 seats. ) and began our journey. About an hour into our trip the driver pulls over in the middle of a dusty highway and gets out. Door slamming and goes around asking all the passengers for payment.
I turn to joe and whispered, “Mike paid.”
Joe proceeds to tell the driver “My friend paid for us.”
The drivers’s face filled with rage and a vicious shouting match broke out between the driver and Joe. The driver was yelling in Joe’s face.
Then, the driver yelled, ” I will take you to the police!” and stormed back into the drivers seat.
Joe turned to me and asked, “Are you sure about this.”
I wasn’t sure.
Joe called Mike and asked, “Did you pay mate?’
I heard a muffled, “No.”
Then there was angry driving, swerving, muttering and a whole bus full of wide eyed passengers.
“Please sir,” I call from the back seat, “I made a BIG mistake. I am sorry”
The man started to calm down.
So do we, but I think What a wild start. I shake my head at myself for causing the drama and I avoid Joe’s eyes. I remember think of the saying, “bad things come in 3’s.” When we get to Kisumu and go to an ATM and the machine literally eats our money before we can grab it. The bank slip reads that thousands of shillings are gone. Was that the second bad thing?
I think the third bad thing was the lonely planet travel book we had was not up to date. We kept calling and calling different phone numbers listed in the book but no one answered. At this point I knew darkness was in a couple hours and I had failed to secure our accommodation. We knew it would be close to dark by the time we got there so our nerves were starting to spark and light up.
We could only continue along the path unwinding before us, yet a path completely and utterly out of control. As we continued up the dusty road to the forest I am not sure what to believe. This is an adventure alright I think to myself. I must have looked stressed because a kind woman that sat in the matatu beside me, asked if I was ok. I told her our predicament about the accommodation. She taps my hand and says, “No problem.”
When we get to Kakamega town it is dusk. People are already hustling to their homes before the quick descent to darkness. She speaks Swahili to a couple of guys in a blue truck with a metal cage full of benches.
“They will take you where you need to go.” She instructs.
We got in…..why? you might ask. I honestly don’t know. It was not practical, safe or wise. But we felt it was our only option. We had to trust they were decent people and not cheaters or dangerous.
We got into the back of the truck and the men locked us in the blue metal cage. We were trapped in the back as we drove out of the town along a winding dirt path just as the sun was setting. What shocked me was how quickly the light left us. Before I had time to process the danger we had put ourselves in, it was too late. We were lumbering into a dark and shadowy jungle, with little money, no contacts and no idea where we were going.
When I think back on this moment I remember the terror I felt. Yet we were in the epitome of adventure or was it stupidity? The deep darkness cried out from the bushes. The squeaking, squawking, rustling, hissing nature that threatened all we knew. I had never felt so aware of simple things. Like the pace of my breathing or my heart pumping blood. I could only mutter to the one greater than it all and hope that my prayers would be answered. I could only trust we’d find our way.
What happened next was something from a fairytale. The drivers arrived and we got out. It was pitch black by this time. The gatekeeper had a clip board. He talked to the drivers in Swahili then pointed down a wide set path of complete darkness apart from a couple of solar lights. We stumbled in the jungle toward a white building.
I entered the warm reception. We had made it. But we still didn’t know if they’d have a space for us. My eyes were wide with terror my hair like the frayed windswept grasses by the sea.
“Why do you look so scared?” the smiling receptionist asked.
“Do you have a room for us?” I asked with wide, hopeful eyes.
The man’s smile fell. My heart clenched. He scanned the book, flipped a page. This moment spanning across a lifetime,
“Yes we have a room for you. No problem, ” he said to me with a wink.
Then literally one minute later another couple came into the resort. They also asked to stay. But this time the receptionist said, “Sorry fully booked.” I let out a huge sigh and felt immense gratitude. We were escorted to a beautiful and peaceful room.
The adventure had vanished within a moment. But wait, we were still in heart of an untamed jungle. Only a bit of bricks and mortar separated us. Yet I was calm. I felt safe.
I wonder what adventure means for the African tribes that live in the forest and experience the jungle everyday. Would a city experience be an equal adventure? Or maybe driving in Vancouver? Aren’t chaotic drivers terrifying? Perhaps not as much as a rhinoceros but I do wonder. However despite the adrenaline we felt and perhaps the topsy turvy travel the experience of adventure sparked my creativity and inspired a novel.
The complex nature of Africa and the multi faceted tribes and dynamics that exist made my experience in Kakamega rainforest intriguing and dynamic. I have learned that what I observed was only through the lens tainted by my own cultural heritage, which is different and therefore not accurate. It is an interpretation. I do not claim to fully understand the dynamics of the people from this land. I wrote out of curiosity, love of nature and a desire to enchant young readers. I am aware of my narrow view. Therefore I choose to keep the setting in my novel fictitious because I would not be able to wholeheartedly represent a true account of life in Kakamega in all its brilliant complexity. My experience in Kakamega really helped me experience adventure and create a vivid and enchanting setting. Kakamega I am grateful.