The International Writers Magazine:Africa
soul-homes, sky-temples and safaris
A young Pakistani travelers unforgettable first encounter
youve been living in a particular place for a number of
years, you tend to forget that a world outside exists. Sure, you
see glimpses of that world on television, in newspapers, books
and pictures you see the mountains, the forests, the beaches,
the cities, the wild animals, the different-colored people. But
after a while you switch off there are jobs to do, meals
to cook, bills to pay, relatives to visit, parties to attend.
And so each day
passes, drifting into the other, exactly the same as the one before.
One of these days, youll die, and you may well be a contented,
satisfied person, in a worldly sort of way you had a successful
career, a nice family, a nice house, nice friends, a decent social life;
perhaps not the most faultless of characters, but still, respectable;
and overall yours was a rather cushy existence.
But there is one thing you always wanted to do, and never quite did
your heart would reproach you, about your lack of spontaneity,
your unwillingness to accept a change until finally it spoke
no more, its voice drowned in the multitudinous hum of air conditioners
and cellular phones.
And on your deathbed, you will wish you had listened. You will wish
you had stepped out of the television frames of vicarious existence,
stepped out of that neatly-drawn, static little circle you called life,
and seen the jungles for yourself.
Heard, smelt, tasted, felt, understood.
You will wish you had traveled.
Ive always had a fixation with traveling, and Ive done quite
a bit of it as a teenager, with my family, friends or for work. Its
all been tremendous fun, in the frenzied, touristy kind of way, but
this time - my 20th summer - I felt something different. Something more
compelling, more powerful; a quieter kind of excitement, a deeper, older,
inward kind of joy. I felt it once before, in Mecca last year, when
I stood before the Kaba, transfixed, eyes sparkling with tears,
thinking only that Id never seen anything more beautiful. That
was my faith-temple, my sacred soul-home, but there are temples and
soul-homes scattered all over the world - and one of these I discovered
past summer, in Africa.
Kenya, to be more precise any generalization about that vast
and beautiful continent is grossly unfair. Id never been to Kenya,
or anywhere in Africa before, so I didnt quite know what to expect.
I had some general impressions stuff that your mind picks up
from TV shows, nature magazines and Disney movies - all thoroughly wrong,
of course, as preconceived impressions tend to be.
My first learning experience happened as soon as we disembarked at the
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, and noticed something
odd i.e., the cold! It was the middle of July, a time when back
home the temperatures are such you could fry eggs on the windowpanes.
Not that I mind cold, of course Im a winter person, and
cold wind does to me what coffee does to caffeine addicts. But this
was a bit of a situation our packing consisted almost entirely
of t-shirts, and, well, t-shirts, save for the two denim jackets Ammi
had emphatically made us pack at the last minute. It seems that moms
active little sixth sense had already informed her subconscious that
Kenya happens to lie below the equator, making July the blusteriest
nippiest wintriest month of the year. We also later discovered that
the weather in Nairobi stays cool all year round, averaging 20ēCelsius
daytime - which explained why there was no central heating or cooling
in any of the homes or buildings, not even fans! It was a paradisiacal
sort of climate, crispy cool, dappled with deliciously warm sun, a tickling
breeze and minty-fresh air. Now this was something of a revelation to
us, after all those pictures of sticky, mosquito-bitten, khaki-clad
explorers plodding through parched savannahs under torrid, merciless
suns (they obviously didnt know the best time to visit). And so,
happy and suddenly revived, with those denim jackets our salvation,
we piled into the High Commissioners black Prado for our first
look at the city of Nairobi, capital of Kenya.
I was a participant at some of these international youth summits
in America, I remember people asking me questions like, "Do
you have computers in Pakistan? Roads? Do you live in mud huts?"
and I would get a little annoyed, not so much at the people, but
at the startlingly skewed perspective of the international media.
While its true that millions of people in Pakistan still do
live in mud huts in villages with dirt roads and no electricity,
millions also live in regular cities, just like cities anywhere
else in the world. And whats funny is that I found myself
wondering the same things about Kenya before we left for the trip
and when I came back my friends asked me the same things:
"So, is it like, civilized?" Which, if you think about
it, isnt such an absurd question, considering that the only
things we do see about Africa on TV are animals, natives in tribal
costumes, civil wars, AIDS, and famine. So when we passed the big
telecom billboards, the colorful Sunday markets, the bus stops,
the roundabouts, the churches, the lovely tile-roofed houses, the
banks and shopping malls, I admit it was a bit of a surprise.
Pic: With the Sykes Gray Monkeys
easily been Islamabad (the pretty hilly capital of Pakistan). In parts,
it couldve been Lahore too (the lovely old big-tree-lined city
where I live), and sometimes even Murree (a fun northern mountain-resort).
I loved it instantly it had this cheerful, easy-going, very homey
feel about it that told me I could live here rather happily. But what
reminded us that we were in Kenya and not Pakistan, what made it Nairobi
and not Islamabad was Nairobis greatest treasure, the trees.
I have never in my life seen such gorgeous trees. It is as if the city
were an amorphous wild creature, winding and weaving its way through
a web of virgin forest. They may have paved the earth, they may have
put tall concrete structures in the sky, but here the jungle was still
mistress, still queen, and green was the color of her throne, green
were her fluttering banners, vivid, glistening, exuberant, alive. And
in the silence of the night, you could hear her breathe, hear her grow
- in every twig and leaf and blade of grass, in every flaming flower,
you could hear the humming drumbeat of the jungle.
Our driver was called Agre, a rather immense fellow with a smile that
betrayed his forbidding-suited-bodyguard image completely. He melted
before Bia and me the moment we emerged from the airport and greeted
him with a beaming "Jambo!" It was lucky I had learnt some
Swahili phrases on the Internet before the trip; an occasional "Habari"
("How are you?") or "Asante" ("Thank you!")
was all it took to win a Kenyan driver, shopkeeper or braid-makers
heart. But I was wonderfully warmed to see how incredibly friendly everyone
are several types of friendlinesses, and most often
we experience the obligatory type, like the flushed high-pitched
overpoweringly polite waitress at Pizza Hut, or the curious blond
apartment-neighbor who must feign civility even though her face
has turned quite the ashen hue since you told her where youre
Here, however, people
were nice because they were. It was just natural. As politely as they
could, they tried to fleece you a bit, because you were foreigners,
but being desi (i.e., South Asian Indian sub-continental) and hence
bargain-hunters by birth, we escaped the fleecing quite comfortably
and ended up taking a nice lot of wooden masks, mini hide-drums, floppy
straw hats and sea-shelled sandals back home with us.
One place you must visit if youre ever in Nairobi, though, is
the Nairobi City Park. You park your car outside this gateless entrance
and follow a windy dirt road flanked by riotous trees of nameless varieties,
until you turn a bend and come to a clearing, in the center, you will
behold the most magnificent, fuchsia-pink bougainvillea tree. I was
mesmerized the tree looked to me a goddess-bride, tall and towering,
her green arms and long lush tresses flowing wild with flowers. Crowned
in the deepest pink, with a green mantle of vines billowing behind her.
The photographs, of course, dont even tell half the story, and
the video camera shames her. But in my minds eye I can see her,
standing there poised in her hushed, dim, light-twinkling temple, a
muffled sort of chippering floating on the air
and then, suddenly,
furry little shapes materialize from the darkness before your sun-speckled
eyes, perched on branches, hidden in thickets, peering from behind tree
and in a sudden rustling, moment, you find yourself besieged
by an army of wild gray Sykes monkeys!
When people look at the pictures of us with the monkeys, they gasp incredulously
and ask, "But werent you scared?" The truth is, we dont
know, because there wasnt time to feel scared! They appeared from
nowhere, and before you knew what was going on, they were swarming around
you, clambering on top of you, tugging your hair, knocking off your
hats, fiddling with your jacket zippers, prying into your pockets. No,
it wasnt scary at all it was supremely exciting! I can
safely say that it hasnt often happened in my life that a big
fat fuzzy 30-pounder Sykes monkey sits on my shoulder nibbling
corn-ears from my palm - nor do you often find monkeys scrambling up
your legs or prancing on your head as if it were the most normal thing
in the world for them to do.
it was at that place and moment that we began to discover the true
magic of Africa. The High Commissioner took us out for dinner that
night in a wonderfully tasteful Indian restaurant. Theres
a rather large population of Indians in Kenya, most of them descendants
of the traders, artisans and laborers relocated here by the British
during the 19th century. Kenya, being a former British colony, shares
much of her historical experiences with Pakistan.
I could safely say
that, post-independence, Kenyas made much better progress as far
as education is concerned. The results are obvious everybody
can speak, read and write English, nature is respected, not vandalized,
people are polite, and do not ogle. I dont think I ever saw a
scrap of litter on any street in the city or countryside.
But theres a downside too, a consequence of and reaction to poverty,
ethnic strife and a corrupt and completely incompetent police force.
Nairobi (or rather, Nairobbery, as it is fondly referred to by the media)
after dark is a veritable den of thieves, mobsters and seditionists.
Young, unemployed men who resent rich foreigners for coming and entrenching
themselves in their country, living in fine houses and having a grand
time at the expense of their resources. All houses have armed watchmen,
security alarm systems, barred doors and windows. Even in broad daylight
you can have your purse pinched if you look like a foreigner. Nothing
of the sort happened to us, thankfully, but we were told many horror
stories by acquaintances who live there, so we tried being as discreet
as possible when we went out shopping. Smiling meekly at any passerby
who looked remotely threatening. The next day we left for the place
of dreams, the Masai Mara.
Part Two here
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