After the early death of my then mother in law, my ex-wife was left some money in her will. It was a generous, if not life-changing amount, and she decided to spend it on a holiday. As it was enough to be able to choose somewhere sufficiently exotic, we could examine the possibilities of travel further afield. The short list was soon drawn up. India, Egypt, South America, and Kenya were all at the top. I was quite keen to visit the USA at the time, and to explore the battlefields of the Civil War. However, it was my wife’s legacy, and only right that she should make the final decision. She settled on Africa, and a trip to see wildlife in Kenya. It would be a two-centre holiday, with time spent in Nairobi, before moving on to the coast at Mombasa. Some excursions would be arranged beforehand, and others chosen after arrival. We would have to visit during the summer, as my wife was a lecturer, so had over six weeks off at that time. We settled on mid-July, and made the booking. We were going to fly to Nairobi (via Rome), and stay in a nice hotel on the edge of the city. We included an overnight stay at The Ark, a purpose-built hotel and animal viewing area, similar to the more famous ‘Treetops’. After eight days in this region, we would fly on to Mombasa, to enjoy the coastal area, and warmer weather found there. It was all arranged, and we began to get quite excited about our forthcoming safari adventure.
We lived in Wimbledon at the time, and our next-door neighbours were from a Kenyan Asian background. Their brother still lived in Mombasa, where he owned a large car dealership. We were very friendly with them, so naturally chatted to them about the holiday, and they were happy to give us some tips and pointers. Back then, Kenya was not a very democratic country. Daniel Arap Moi had declared himself president for life, and the currency was not traded; so the Kenyan Shillings were only available in the home country, at rates inflated for tourists. Our London neighbours devised a plan, where we would be able to get much better rates, and help their family into the bargain. On our arrival in Nairobi, we would be met by a business acquaintance. He would come to our hotel, and give us a substantial sum of Kenyan money. For the sake of appearances, we would change up some of our travellers cheques at the hotel too, so that we had a receipt for a transaction. On our return to the UK, we would give our neighbours the amount of money agreed. In this way, their brother was able to get some money out of Kenya, and have some savings over in England. It was illegal in Kenya, but the UK government were not at all interested. So, we agreed to help out, knowing that it would make our holiday very cheap in terms of spending money once we were there.
The flight was long and tiring, mainly because of a long delay on the ground in Rome, waiting for the time when dozens of noisy and excited Italian passengers were to board the aircraft. As we were flying due south, there was no time delay to deal with, and we arrived as expected, in the mid-afternoon. Although we had booked with a large company, our trip was mainly as independent travellers, with a guide arranged for some trips, and the services of a representative on call, if we needed them. We were met by a driver at Nairobi airport, and we were the only passengers in a small mini-coach. The hotel was modern and comfortable, with the city in sight some distance off. The reception advised us that it was dangerous to walk into the centre, and recommended that we take a taxi at all times. We changed up some travellers cheques, booked a table in the restaurant of the hotel for later that night, and retired to our room for a nap, as we were both very tired after the journey. We were woken about two hours later by the telephone. The reception said that someone was there, asking for us. He had thought this to be most unusual, and asked if he should be allowed up. I asked them to show him to our room, and as I suspected, he was the ‘money-man’, a salesman from the local branch of the car dealership. He introduced himself, and handed over a small zip bag. Once he was sure that we were satisfied, he said his farewells, and left. He was visibly uncomfortable, and seemed unhappy doing this task. We counted the bagful of cash, and were surprised to find just over £1,000 worth of Kenyan money. We had been asked to give £200 for this in sterling, once back in England. This meant that we had a rate of five to one, instead of less than one to one exchanged by the hotel. We were cash-rich, for the first time in our lives. The meal in the hotel that evening was surprisingly good, and compensated for the overcast weather; hardly the blazing African sun we had anticipated. It was to turn out to be indicative of many very good meals during the whole holiday. Kenya remains as one of the few places that I have visited, where I never once got an upset stomach, despite eating in a wide variety of places, including open-air restaurants, and small cafes. Flush with our new wad of cash, we paid for the meal immediately, and even left a generous tip.
The next morning, we decided to take in the sights of Nairobi. As advised, we took a taxi, as there were always plenty waiting outside the hotel. The reception also told us the approximate cost, as the meter was either not switched on, or unreliable. The driver first told me not to lean my arm on the open window. He said that if he had to stop, there was a good chance that someone would steal my watch, by ripping it off my wrist. He also told us to keep our camera slung at the front where we could see it, and suggested that my wife sling her bag around her body. On the short journey into the city, he drove straight through the first red traffic light, causing us some alarm. Realising our concern, he said that he would not stop at any lights or stop signs, in case someone came out of the bushes to rob us. We had only been in the country a short time, and we were becoming very worried by all these warnings. When he dropped us at the main shopping street, he went on to say that we should not offer large denomination notes, or produce any wallets. He said that we should carry small amounts in our pockets, and never accept the offer of tour guides, or go off with anyone who wanted to show us something. As we got out of the cab, we were wondering what we had let ourselves in for.