East African Wedding – Part One

The 747-400 crept slowly forward, coming to rest with a soft jolt. The four Rolls Royce engines wound down, the noise diminishing quickly, drowned out by the simultaneous scrabbling for bags from the overhead lockers, the mass of humanity completely disregarding the seatbelt signs, which were still illuminated.

The Mighty, altough now retired Boeing B747-400, with the African Tailfin art.

After over thirty-two years in the airline industry, this still irritates me, but I digress.

Rescuing our bags from the locker, we stood in the aisle patiently until eventually, the passenger door was opened, and we slowly trudged forwards.

At the aircraft door, I was assaulted by the warmth immediately, and the hot breeze carried the unique smell of Africa into my nostrils.

A short walk, and we were in the terminal building of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.

Surprisingly, we were processed by Immigration and Customs very quickly, and we wandered out into the arrivals hall.

I noticed that security was mainly conducted by members of the Kenyan Army, who surveyed us with disinterest as we moved past them. I did see that their rifles appeared to be rusty, and un-serviced, and had obviously seen better days.

So, why were SWMBO and I standing in the arrivals hall of an East African airport?

We had been invited to Nairobi to attend a wedding. One of SWMBO’s friends was the Station Manager for a competitor airline, and he had met and fallen in love with a local Kikuyu lady, and as he had no living family, he invited us, together with a few of his other British friends to attend the ceremony.

Nairobi sits virtually on the equator (1° 16′ 0″ S, 36° 48′ 0″ E), yet the temperature isn’t quite what you would expect. It was one of the dry seasons (Kenya has two, one from June until October, the other is from December until March.

It was February 2002, so bang in the middle of the dry season, and average temperatures during the day were 27°C (80°F) and 15°C (59°F) at night.

So, shorts, bush shirts and boots during the day, and an additional fleece at night.

SWMBO and I were scanning the concourse, looking for the promised driver, but the multitude of meeters and greeters made this challenging to say the least.

Eventually, I spotted a tall noble-looking Kenyan, holding a battered piece of cardboard bearing my name.

I called to our other travelling companions, Nick and Graham, and we lugged our bags after our driver, who was striding swiftly towards the exit.

Outside Arrivals at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport

Clambering into the battered old Toyota cab, our driver, George wrestled with the transmission (which whined alarmingly), and shouted over the noise of the roaring engine, that he was taking us to our hotel.

The roads were navigated with much swerving cursing and swearing, and soon we were weaving in, out and through the traffic, and several times I thought we would collide with incredibly overloaded minibuses (matatu), which were not only filled, but also had dozens of people hanging on outside – for a reduced fare no doubt!

A Typical Matatu minibus. Think I’ll stick to cabs…

Eventually, we arrived at our hotel, which from the road looked almost passable. Once inside, my optimism crashed and burned like a shot down bomber, and I regarded the dilapidated reception, wondering if it was possible to catch a terminal disease from just being there.

SWMBO nudged me hard, muttering “This is a good, cheap and cheerful hotel organised by Duncan, and will only cost us a few US Dollars – and its only for two nights!”

Having registered, I was given a large metal key, and we made our way down the gloomy corridor to our room.

I unlocked the door, which swung open forlornly, as if embarrassed to reveal the room beyond. The cockroaches also seemed to be embarrassed, as they scuttled into the gloom as quickly as possible.

“Cheap and cheerful?” I exclaimed. “More like cheap and very dismal.”

The room was lit by a single incandescent light bulb hanging from a cable. The mattress was rolled up at the foot of the iron framed bed, and some moth-eaten blankets were stacked upon a rickety chair that looked like it had been stolen from the local Sunday school.

The shower was filthy, and I shuddered.

“I think I will take only combat showers[1] whilst we are here.

Looking at SWMBO, I could see that even her extensive travel experience hadn’t prepared her for staying in a one-star hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Looking at my watch, I decided that whatever the time, I needed a beer, as it was bound to be five o’clock somewhere – Thanks Jimmy Buffet.

Walking back to the reception, we made our way to the hotel restaurant, which was made up of several tables designed to look like chuck wagons from the old wild west. The tables were arranged in a circle around a small dance floor.

I was thinking that this was all a bit surreal.

I spotted Nick and Graham sitting at a table, looking decidedly unsettled, so we swiftly joined them.

Within seconds, a waitress arrived and took our order. I decided long ago, that wherever I was in the world, I would always order the local brew rather than buy European or American imports.

In quick order I was presented with an ice-cold bottle of Tusker beer, which is made in East Africa. It wasn’t a bad brew either.

Sitting laughing and chatting with the others, I suddenly had the distinct impression that I was being, how shall I put it, interfered with in the trouser department. Looking down, I could see a slim brown hand engaging in what I can only describe as undoing my flies.

The involuntary yelp I let out made everyone jump, and Nick said “Oh, lucky you, seems like you have become the latest target of the night fighters”

I should, perhaps mention, that Night Fighters is the flight crew nickname for prostitutes – and it seemed that our table, being occupied by three white male tourists, was a designated and legitimate target.

I have to say, that the owner of the hand was a strikingly beautiful woman; elegant, tall, and very statuesque. She beamed at me, looking me in the eye, saying that for 500 shillings she would make me a Masai warrior. She told me her name was Elizabeth.

At the time, 500 Kenyan Shillings was worth about £4.00. Crazy. This woman would sell herself to me for so little. I was deeply saddened by this. When I said no, she persisted, and SWMBO came to my rescue, repeatedly telling Elizabeth that I was not available. Elizabeth, seeing that she was in a no-win situation re-targeted Nick and Graham.

SWMBO managed to drive off Elizabeth and her squadron, by being cousin to one, and sister to the other.

Looking back, it was quite amusing in a very English way, with Elizabeth with hands like an octopus, and SWMBO having to beat her off with a metaphorical stick.

It was the same later in the evening when Duncan arrived, and we ended up on the tiny dance floor. Elizabeth came cruising in on my six o’clock, and murmured in my ear that the cost of access to the ranks of Masai warriorhood had now reduced to 300 shillings.

Eventually, she lost interest, and wandered off into the gloom of the night, and we returned to our room, both eager for the morning.

I slept only fitfully, woken at intervals by the sound of doors slamming, and at one point hearing a woman’s voice yelling “I give you jig-jig, now you give me 200 shillings”

I was glad when daylight crawled into the room with me.

SWMBO was still asleep when I got up, so I decided that I would go and have a coffee whilst waiting for her to wake up.

The chuck wagon restaurant was almost deserted, so the waiter invited me to take any table that I wanted.

I plonked myself down, and ordered a large mug of coffee. I idly flicked my paperback book open (no iPads or Kindles back then!) and half-heartedly attempted to pick up from where I left off on the aircraft the previous day.

The waiter returned with a mug of simply monstrous proportions, filled to the brim with fragrant black coffee, and a large stainless-steel pot filled with milk. “Asante” I said, and he smiled, and scuttled back to his small podium.

I leaned back and took a sip of the coffee, which was strong, and full of flavour. I savoured the taste, rolling it across my tongue.

At that moment, I was distracted as the doors at the other end of the restaurant were flung open, and three men strode purposefully through the dining area. The one in the lead was about six feet three inches tall (1.90m) and must have weighed about 250 pounds (114 kg). He had the sort of face only a mother could love. He was scarred, pock marked, and had a nose that a Rugby prop would be proud of. Totally bald, he looked very intimidating.

His mate was equally sinister. He was shorter, very compact, and musclebound. He too was bald, had a livid scar which ran like a furrow from just beneath his left eye to his larynx, and was covered in tattoos. his head was entirely shaven except for a ponytail about a foot long.

Bringing up the rear was – surely not????

Bringing up the rear was a man whom I last saw eight years ago at Long Beach airport, when I was learning to fly – let’s call him Pieter Dirkmann.

Pieter was completing a Boeing 737 type conversion as I was plodding through the Californian skies in a humble Cessna 150. He was an affable bear of a man, with a very strong South African accent, and a love of proper beer. He lived in the same condo community that I did, and we would often share a brew at the communal barbeques that happened every Friday.

SWMBO used to fly out to see me regularly, the lovely woman was hauling suitcases filled with Newcastle Brown ale, and IPA to keep me sane. American beer back then was pretty dire to the English palate, and the only choices available locally were Budweiser, Coors, or Michelob. Things have changed over the years, and there are now some very good US craft beers available. But not back in 1989.

Pieter was particularly fond of Newcastle Brown, and he and I used to chat about the future whilst watching the sunset over the rooftops of downtown Redondo Beach.

He was hopeful of getting a job with South African Airways, and I aspired to work with the mighty BA.

He completed his type rating whilst I was midway through my course, and flew back to Jo’burg.

That was the last I had seen him.

Now, here he was, striding towards me accompanied by two heavy duty types in a seedy hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi.

He recognised me instantly, and he grinned.

“Mark! What are you doing here friend?”

“I’m here for a wedding,” I explained. I waved him to sit down, and called the waiter over.

He sat down, looking at me levelly.

“You want a coffee?” I asked, and he nodded a yes.

“Small world” I said. “What are you up to? I wouldn’t have thought that SAA would use this as a crew hotel”

He laughed. “Ahh, that. It didn’t work out with the big boys, so I am flying a Dornier 28, running freight between Dar es Salaam and small strips round these parts.”

“I won’t ask…”

He gave a tired smile.  “Let’s just say that some parts of this damned country need more than the local policeman to give them protection.”

So, my old friend was now possibly operating as an arms smuggler, and I suspected that he was running guns and maybe other contraband in and out of East Africa.

He drained his coffee, and reached across to me, offering his hand. I shook it firmly. “Gotta split mate” he said, and he stood up, and walked briskly out of the restaurant, and out of my life.

I haven’t seen or heard of him since. It is true that aviation is a very small world.

I was still musing about how life changes when SWMBO appeared at the table and started happily chatting about our trip up country to the foothills of Mount Kenya, for the wedding.

Finishing a surprisingly good breakfast, we decided to have a look around Nairobi for the day.

The cab dropped us obligingly in the city centre, and we spent a leisurely day just wandering around the place, soaking up the atmosphere. It was certainly a lively place, but by mid-afternoon we were ready to get back to the hotel.

Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi

I was hot, dusty, and thirsty, so despite my misgivings, I decided to take a shower. To reduce my exposure to potential terminal illness, I completed my shower in less than two minutes, and came out feeling refreshed, and ready for the evening activity.

We had decided to visit Carnivore, an open barbeque restaurant, specialising in meats of all kinds.

The cab dropped us off outside the venue, which was brightly lit, and we could hear happy voices as we trooped down the short path into the place.

The entrance to Carnivore…

We were welcomed by a smiling waiter who found us a table located away from the main fire pit, so the temperature was fine.

The large wooden table was round, and easily accommodated our party of six. In it’s centre stood a circular two-tier tray, upon which were pickles and sauces, and salad vegetables.

In the middle of the upper tray stood a small wooden pyramid, bearing our table number – 33 in this case.

Having caught our attention, the waiter explained that it was a buffet meal, and that the waiters would continue bringing food to our table all the time our flag was flying.

I looked around, wondering what on earth he was talking about, and thinking that I may have misheard him. My fellow diners also looked a little nonplussed.

Laughing, the waiter produced a small white paper flag on a stick which he deftly inserted into a hole in the top of the pyramid.

Effective…Keep ’em coming Solomon!

He went on to explain that he recommended the Game Menu, which would give us a true taste of Africa.

All of us were, to a large extent, either foodies or adventurous diners, so we opted for the Game menu.

Whilst we were still considering our forthcoming meal, our drinks arrived, in the case of the chaps, it was Tusker lager, and SWMBO had a Gin and Tonic.

Well – It IS called Carnivore, after all…

We relaxed, and regarded our surroundings. The woodsmoke from the barbeque was fragrant, and we could hear birds and insects in the trees outside through the unglazed windows.

My Tusker was ice cold, and was just what the doctor ordered for accompanying an African meal.

Another smiling waiter appeared, holding what looked like a mediaeval combat sword, impaled upon which was a huge haunch of meat.

This is where the action is…The Barbeque itself!

“Zebra?” he asked.

We all nodded, and he proceeded to carve thick slices onto our plates.

How can I describe Zebra meat? Far less fatty than beef, but with a delicate, “gamey” flavour[2]. I helped myself to a portion of green salad, and cleared my plate. It’s just as well that we had done a significant amount of walking, as I was already up for sampling the next meat being proffered by our waiter.

This time, he proudly announced, we were to try Hartebeest. I intercepted him before he had a chance to dump a pound of meat on my plate, so enjoyed just two thin slices. The taste was good – moist, tender, nicely flavoured, and with only a light suggestion of gaminess.

I decided to lay off the salad, as I needed to keep some spare capacity for more beer, and other meat types.

By now, the restaurant was starting to fill up with more patrons. When we arrived at just gone 1730, it was nowhere near busy, but it was now 1830, and people were arriving to eat so that they could be done by 2030, when the restaurant closes.

We all chatted happily, and everyone had been adventurous enough to try all the meats offered so far.

It wasn’t long before our waiter, Solomon re-appeared, bearing yet more meat. With a big grin, he asked “Who wants to try Crocodile?”

Crocodile, Sir?

I looked across at SWMBO, but by the look on her face, she was up for it, as was I and the other chaps, so I allowed Solomon to place a couple of slices onto my plate.

I cautiously loaded my fork with a morsel, and took my first mouthful of reptile meat. Strangely, it had a meaty texture, somewhat reminiscent of chicken or pork, but with a mildly fishy taste – which is hardly surprising.

I am not particularly fond of fish, and only eat very mildly flavoured species such as cod, and bass, and then only occasionally, if SWMBO serves it up. I was therefore quite surprised to find myself enjoying eating Croc, as much as they evidently enjoy eating us, should we fall in the river with them.

I was now beginning to feel a little stuffed, and conscious of the need to taste the last dish on offer – Ostrich, I left the salad alone, and settled for another bottle of Tusker.

Solomon reappeared at our table, and presented his sword, this time loaded with Ostrich.

Ostrich tastes very similar to high quality lean beef. It was mouth-wateringly tender, and beautifully flavoured, and I enjoyed it and hoped that I would be able to buy it back in the UK.

By now, all of us were replete, and could eat no more, and so with a triumphant flick of the wrist, SWMBO plucked the small white flag from its place at the top of the table.

Solomon spotted this as he approached our table with yet another haunch of meat on a sword, and immediately slalomed off to another table, without missing a beat.

Fantastic service, and good food. What more could I want?

As we approached the hotel, my heart sank, and I realised that I could want more, by way of a better hotel, but we were only here overnight, and would be checking out next morning.

SWMBO and I exchanged our goodnights with the boys, and made our way to our forlorn room, and we hit the sack immediately.

This account will be continued in the next episode, so watch out for it in due course…

[1] Combat Shower – No water used at all, spray on deodorant only

[2] Zebra meat contains just 0.5% fat, about one tenth the amount found in a similar-sized portion of beef, and 33% less calories, just 148 compared to 230 in rump steak.