I had spent the last seven hours issuing threatening glares to the rambunctious SpongeBob SquarePants kid “seated” behind me who had Riverdanced on the back of my seat from Toronto to Amsterdam. Luckily I was able to turn my fixation to the burning sky of electric orange and grapefruit-flesh pink as the plane chased an eternal sunset. Crossing time zones at 800km/hour allows for such remarkable displays, creating skyscapes suitable for inspirational posters. The clouds looked like they could be walked upon, billowy white like my great-grandmother’s hair in the morning, and then, to the west–ribbed like sand from ebbing ocean waters.
My fidgety seatmate was like a Jack Russell, minus her tongue up my nostrils and exploring my ear canals. She was deaf in one ear, and because I am a fantastic mumbler, she quickly gave up on communication with me and read all the information tucked in the seat pocket in front of her, including the barf bag and how to exit the plane in case of emergency. Is that even an option?
The KLM flight attendants were as lovely and manicured as Bob Barker’s Price is Right wing-women. They passed out smoked almonds with pearly smiles, and I shot a pearly smile back. Thank god for European airlines and their pooh-pooh reaction to the peanut allergies that have created frantic high-alerts in North American elementary schools and airlines (who serve garlicky Bits & Bites as a shoddy substitute). Now, even packages of peanuts come with disclaimers: “This product may contain nuts.” And everything that doesn’t have an iota of a relationship with peanuts, like popsicles and tampons, also come with a disclaimer, “This product may have come in contact with tree nuts or dairy.”
When the plane touched down at Schipol in Amsterdam at 6 a.m., anticipation, the fuel of dreams, longing, cravings and travel, percolated under my skin that was beginning to feel like ever-tightening sausage casing. My whole body had become a whoopee cushion of puffiness. The blood that should have been inching towards my feet was leaking into my eyes, making them as pink as an albino rat’s.
My head had felt like a shook-up snow globe since I left Abbotsford on June 22nd, and now, finding myself on the Leidesplein in Amsterdam, walking through extended whiffs of skunky pot, calm was returning. I didn’t even care that I spent most of my day completely lost. I had 12 hours before my flight to Kenya, and I didn’t stop walking for 10 of them. I tried slimy smoked eel and cod at a herring shack near the Singel canal, had a sleeve of Palm and a “tosti” (poor excuse for a grilled cheese) along another houseboat-studded canal and poked around some supermarkets in between (discovering Paprika Lays potato chips, cans of already mixed gin and tonic and brie wheels as big as the tires on my Suzuki). I wrote reassuring postcards to indicate my aliveness to potentially fretting family members and Wanda, walked through the Red Light District with a non-averted gaze and took a cruise along the ambient canals in a four-language guided tour. At this point my head was snapping back uncontrollably in a narcoleptic-type sleep. The girl beside me must have thought I had Tourette’s, without the swearing part.
I returned to Schipol airport confident that I had avoided a deep vein thrombosis with all my walking. I was unscathed and proud of myself for not getting smucked by a bike or a moped. They both seemed to be coming at me from all directions the entire day as I navigated the cobblestoned streets with names a minimum of 26 letters long, all ending with “splein,” “strecht” or “straat.”
I boarded the plane again, taking my coveted window seat with leg room adequate for a chihuahua and watched dreamy Amsterdam go poof under the cloud cover. Drifting through another eight-plus hours of flying time, I arrived ruffled and cramped in Nairobi, where everyone deplaned in a non-orderly fashion. Like the crush of excited children wanting to whack a birthday piñata. It was like the mobs you read about where six people die from getting trampled. I not-so-kindly told the guy behind me that standing closer to me didn’t make the “line” go any faster. It was one of the survival lines I frequently used in Uganda.
I had completely forgotten about the miniature personal space bubble that Africans manage to maintain. My brother Dax and Wanda would have already thrown punches. Instead of inching forward in line, I purposely leaned back into the guy leaning on me—ha! Reverse psychology, but I bet he didn’t even notice, or care. I was sleepwalking to the Lubumbashi gate when I learned that my Kenya Airways hop-over to the Congo had left an hour and a half early–proving that the concept of “African time” can still be predictably unpredictable.
The 20-hour flight delay I had in Toronto barely registered now as I had to digest the news of the hitch that came with missing the connecting flight. Unfortunately, because the Congo isn’t exactly a tourist mecca, outgoing flights don’t run at the same Westjet-greyhound-pace to sun-soaked destinations like Hawaii and Puerto Vallarta. I was told by a hot and bothered gate agent that the next outgoing flight was in two days, on Saturday morning. I could have flown to Addis or Johannesburg, but that would only take me further from my destination, to pace in a different airport.
Tired, without energy to battle and bitch, I made arrangements for Saturday with the backpack on my back slowly compressing my last remaining discs. I had intentions of crying, but was too dehydrated. I accepted my fate gracefully while the angry woman at the wicket beside me vocalized what I more accurately felt. She yelled so loud for so long that I had a ringing in my ears like one gets after a rock concert. I asked Hot and Bothered where I could find a phone and was told that there weren’t any. Baggage lockers? Nope, none of those either due to security reasons. Internet? Two dollars a minute—oh, and that guy, who sells magazines at Gate 9, he will let you use his cell phone for $4 a minute. Phone sex operators don’t even charge that much!
I phoned Chantal in the Congo, who was anticipating my arrival that morning. I emailed everyone else to vent and moan and illustrate my new surroundings. Missionaries and dusty travelers, barefoot and curled up in balls along the hallways, the ripe scent of armpits, like wasabi striking my brain. There was a mosque and a meditation centre being used as surreptitious napping quarters, stores selling giraffe carvings and beef samosas being sold for close to the same price as a carving and a one minute phone call. By now, my bags had already become a part of me, and delirious from lack of sleep I skulked to the Transit Lounge where I was told I could sleep for four hours for $25US.
This is where I found Betty– who herded me into her tourism office of faded safari posters from the 70s. She force-fed me the idea of staying at Central Park Hotel downtown. Her first quote was $170US a night, and we’re not talking Royal York glamour and rose petals floating on the bathwater. The dated pictures she pressed into my hands showcased a bed as big as a tennis court (which turned out to be true), wi-fi in the rooms (not so true), a FREE gym (not true) and a bright bathroom that would allow me to take a shit and shower at the same time due to the proximity of both.
Betty insisted that I would be bored anywhere else and pushed the Central Park digs on me. And she would only accept cash and quickly escorted me to an ATM where she calculated how many Kenyan shillings I would need. I trusted her, but entering 25,000ksh into the ATM key pad made me quiver a little. It was the equivalent of $350US she told me more than once. When I asked about cheaper options she assured me that I would be robbed. “See your laptop—GONE!” She snapped her fingers for emphasis. “Everything you own, if you stay somewhere that I do not recommend, will be gone. Then you will say, Betty, why you not tell me about this and I will say, I did, Jules Trotsky. I did.” I corrected Betty on my non-Russian last name and she asked if I was racist. Then she asked where I was really from, and when I said Canada, she had already guessed it. “You have all this hair on your face that I could shave. It is for the cold in Canada I guess.” Betty was obviously a charm school grad. She then went on a rant about developed countries like Canada bringing the swine flu to Africa. “But, I will live longer than you, probably. My skin makes me resistant—you go pink and get rashes like the other white people, not so resistant. Like Michael Jackson, he tried to go white, and now—look—dead.”
Betty did overextend her customer service by coming with me to the hotel with the hired driver, to tuck me in properly. I was pleasantly surprised with the interior and after a tepid shower under a showerhead that emitted water like a fireworks display, I ordered a room service: a buttery omelette, sausages sweet with nutmeg, milky tea and then collapsed in bed for five hours. Desperate for a workout when I regained consciousness, I went to the gym (the #1 reason why I picked Central Park over the other hotels where I would be robbed) and spun on a bike for an hour listening to Kenny Rogers, Africa`s hero. I had also forgotten about Kenny, Dolly and dear Celine Dion being blared in all the bars and buses.
Feeling brave and dismissing the tragic massages I had in Uganda with the woman who had me lie on a bed covered with a red checkered tablecloth while she made my hair into a bird`s nest with oil, I booked an hour with Priscah. “She is the brown one, not the dark one,” I was informed at reception. “Selena is the dark one.” It was euphoric and all-encompassing massage, meaning, if I were a Thanksgiving turkey, I was basted everywhere. There are no borders or polite draping with African treatments. In fact, I didn’t even blink when Priscah climbed on the table to straddle me and massage my ass while Kenny sang “The Gambler,” again.
Content after a kaleidoscope day of emotions, I made my way to the hotel bar for a warm Tusker and a curious chicken curry that came with a baseball-sized serving of ugali (maize flour with water). Before returning to my room I asked a staff member about a local wildlife orphanage called Sheldrick`s that I was interested in visiting. He gave me sketchy details, but I thanked him profusely anyway. “Maybe you would like to show your appreciation with a payment, madam. I will accept US dollars for my help.”
Ahhh, yes. Everything has its price in this world. I remind myself that I am in Africa and that what I spent on my flight is more than a nurse’s annual salary in Nairobi. And so the adventure continues. The only worrying part is that due to the unexpected delays over the last few days I have almost finished my first book (Attachment by Isabel Fonseca) which leaves me with two books—Growing Pains (Emily Carr`s autobiography) and Love in the Time of Cholera (which I assume will slow me down a little). Worst case scenario? I’ll write a book if I run out of words to read.
Until the next dispatch, hopefully from the Congo…
I remain, Jules Trotsky.
To read all the naked details of my Ugandan massage experience: