I had been dreaming of spending time in a luxury villa with a swimming pool at the famous Kenyan coast, enjoying a laid back lifestyle under palms, sipping a sundowner and overlooking the pristine turquoise blue waves, which curl over the white sand of an endless beach. But the house sit in Kenya turned out quite differently, to say the least!
The days dragged on as if I’d hovered in a timeless hot and mosquito infested space fighting the creepy crawlies, which seemed to enter from everywhere and the giant mouse, which lived behind the stove. Another mouse had greeted me some moments ago descending the stairs most calmly, watching me with a most self-confident expression on its face. “You are too cowardly to kill me anyway!” it seemed to say with glee. And there it was absolutely right. I was. We’d tried to catch the mice with a mousetrap, which wouldn’t kill them. But they were too fat to fit through the gate. They didn’t fit in the cage either because they’d lavished already through the whole kitchen, before we had arrived. Traces of poop and yellow marks in the corners of the lower cupboards were witness to their comfortable long-term settlement.
Going into a number of days of the house sit in Kenya we already started to lose track of time. Only the fluorescent yellow marked section on the calendar witnessed our persistence to fulfil this assignment. We couldn’t wait though to head back to civilisation. On this very day watching the brazen mice, I felt miserable, because I had spent another sleepless night, slapping myself in my face several times as a mosquito returned repeatedly to buzz in my ear. In the night we had the choice, to either cover the bed with the mosquito net and therefore suffer the heavy, suffocating heat without any air movement. Or we could expose ourselves to the cool air of the fan and simultaneously probably to malaria infested mosquitos.
We were actually staying in a huge, once doubtless comfortable villa on the banks of the Mtwapa Creek in the village with the same name, only a couple of kilometres from the Indian Ocean. A giant long thirteen-metre swimming pool was located in the lush garden shaded with plentiful palms. Bougainvillea bushes in all colours garnished the balconies with spacious decks on four floors on either side. The place had been once used to accommodate and to guide clients on deep-sea fishing tours. Numerous trophies of fabulous colourful giant fish eyed us accusingly from the walls in every room of the house. One giant sailfish gave us an almighty fright one night, when we’d finally found some sleep. It came crashing down in the middle of the night. We jumped up shocked as it sounded like burglars breaking into the house.
At the bottom of the stairs in the garden, which led to the river, there were two jetties. Relics from the past, when the business was flourishing and the clients got off their boats directly in front of the property after a satisfying day deep sea fishing in the Indian Ocean. Now only the rusty left overs remained on the edge of the creek, a reminder of busy days. The wooden panels of the walkway had been stolen by opportunists, taking advantage of the unprotected spot, where the guard dogs didn’t normally have access.
The guard dogs, they were a real pleasure! We loved these two gentle dogs from start. There were a playful, male Rottweiler and a mixed-breed lady-dog, which looked like a big Labrador. But we worried for Maggie. In contrary to Matze, the Rottweiler, she made an old, ill impression. She had dull black fur and was suffering from several self-induced wounds on her legs and extremely dry skin, which was itchy. “She has always been gnawing her paws. It’s not treatable. Just leave it as it is!” the owner ordered, when she was introducing us to our tasks on the day of our arrival. “There is nothing you can do about it!” she answered irritated by my inquiry. I’d never seen such a terrible condition and was quite stunned about the deep inflamed holes and big bumps around her joints. “Oh, look, there are numerous ticks on the dogs. Do you have a treatment fluid or a necklace?” I asked sensibly. She stated, while pulling a bottle of dog shampoo from the shelf rudely: “I wanted to wash them anyway before I go! You can help me.” So we washed the dogs together with her, protecting the wounds of Maggie on her legs with tissues and duct tape from the shampoo. My mind was troubled about these wounds. From the first day as we were responsible for the dogs, I pursued the goal to get all the wounds healed before the owner would return. Unfortunately the habit of Maggie to gnaw her paws was so imprinted, that we had to make her always wear socks. The effort bore fruit as all injuries were healed at the end of our house sit and both dogs had equally healthy shiny fur as we’d gave them intense treatment during our stay. The owner was very pleased and surprised with the developments of the dogs.
Next to our task to care for the dogs, we were assigned to supervise the gardener, who came every day, except on weekends. He dragged the abundant fallen palm leaves down the stairs to the riverbank, where they deteriorated or got swept away by the high tide into the river now and then. He worked for an astonishing only 250 Kenyan Shillings a day, which is about 2.50 US Dollars. With an average salary of 97.90 Kenyan Shillings per hour (Source: Africa Pay – Minimum Wages) as a gardener (or for example also as a cleaner, general worker, house servant, children’s ayah, sweeper or day watchmen), it’s hardly possible for him to pay the basic necessities of life. Not even taking into account for us elementary desires such as bread, meat, milk or electricity and health care.
“Don’t let him come every day. Otherwise it gets too expensive!” the landlady instructed us, before she left, leaving us flabbergasted by the tiny amount he was supposed to live from and the instruction to give him even less work. She kept the gardener always in suspense, if and how often he’d work during the week. “I don’t feel like always having him around. Sometimes I can’t stand to see him. Then and when it rains, I send him home anyway,” she’d thunder confidently in her deep voice with a heavy German accent.
Most possibly we wouldn’t have chosen this house sit, if we had done our homework carefully before agreeing to stay for six weeks. We were living in the outskirts of a town with one of the highest unemployment rates in Kenya. Only now we’d watched YouTube videos about high rising crime rates, drug problems, sex-tourism and child abuse in Mtwapa, just around the corner of our place. Why hadn’t we watched this before taking this assignment? we thought exasperated. Obviously the homeowner hadn’t said anything about the downside of the house sit. From the start we were left without a car and barely enough money to pay for the gardener, the dog food and only forty litres of diesel for the generator. The electricity outages in Kenya generally happens several times a day, sometimes for hours and totally unpredictable. But that we didn’t know in advance either.
The house was sparsely furnished as if the owner was in the process to move out rather sooner than later. She actually confirmed our hunch when we asked, why the house was so empty. She was trying to sell the house as she intended to move back to Germany. There was nothing noteworthy in the cupboards, not even the basics such as salt or sugar. Only some dried fish and cookies for the dogs. The fridge and freezer were stuffed to the rim with bones for the dogs and numerous vitamin cases. I dreamed of, how nice it had been at other house sits, where owners had left us plentiful food to help ourselves. Mostly we didn’t even have to replace anything. Even the car had been free to use. After many pleasant house sits, this was the first time that we felt like volunteers paying for our work instead of having an equal give and take between house owner and house sitter. Maybe the owner was just very short on money; we tried to justify her side. There wasn’t much place left in the fridge for our food anyway.
As the owner made the tour through the house with us on the first day, she showed us several panic buttons, which she had installed just a couple of weeks before our arrival. She’d had thieves on the property in plain daylight, when she was actually present. There were burglar bars and locks everywhere at the windows and doors, but not at the top floor. “Thieves are too lazy to climb over the roof up to the third floor,” she commented casually. George and I looked at each other doubtfully. We would have to be extremely cautious, not only outside the property on the streets of Mtwapa town but also on the property. It would be like living in a cage, we thought disillusioned.
At the end of the tour around the house, she introduced us to our maintenance duties of the pool. It was a beautiful, sparkling clean, blue pool, which invited one to take a leap in the cool water instantly. “I never swim anymore,” she said laconically. “The pump is too small for the size of the pool. Just let it run not more than four to six hours a day, otherwise it’s too expensive”, she added. She handed over an old water test scale to check the PH levels, on which the marks were not visible anymore. The treatment products were only Chlorine and some Anti-Algae stuff. Of course, after a week or two into our house sit using the pool moderately as the only possibility to exercise us, it turned cloudy and then green like a fishpond. We fought an unequal frustrating battle to keep the pool clean. We almost didn’t dare to swim anymore. I had already nightmares of a dark brown pool with algae growing into huge mangroves climbing over the swimming pool borders. We feared the day the owner would turn around the corner to inspect the pool. It didn’t really comfort me that it got back to a turquoise instead of green. It was still not blue! We ran the pump almost all day, but even with help from outside and finally her live instructions by Skype, we couldn’t manage to get it blue. A bummer!
When we had our first shower in the beginning of our house sit, we discovered that there was almost no water pressure in our bathroom. The only one to which we had access. In consequence none of the toilets flushed well. She’d locked one part of the house, which was fine, but not helpful. That we discovered particularly, when some weeks into the house sit a storm came up and we couldn’t shut the open doors and windows in the locked part of the house, which kept us awake through the night and most probably soaked the interior of the locked part, too. The rain penetrated through the leaky roof and the dilapidated walls, leaving puddles of water on several places as under our bed as well. At least we had water, just not at the right places!
The solar heating had also seen better days, as we only had hot water, if we used the electric geyser. That one, she’d told us though, not to switch on, as it would prove too expensive. The same she’d said of the only working air-conditioner in one room. We discovered that our clothes and bags were all mouldy in the damp climate after a short time. The air-conditioning would have avoided that. It was a reminder of our time volunteering in the jungle of Ecuador with only cold water, no electricity and mouldy clothes. My love of the moist tropics was meanwhile on ground zero, as I hate to have cold showers, even if it’s in a warm climate.
As the pool had failed as a pastime, there was not much diversion at the villa anymore. The television wasn’t attached to an antenna and no radio was provided. Luckily the Internet was working and we could get entertainment from our electronic devices. Of course we played with the dogs, but walks were not allowed with them. And we were quite intimidated to get out of the property, which made our radius of life even smaller. Being without transport we got around only with an expensive taxi to do the basics of shopping. Initially we didn’t want to face the local chaotic streets and plentiful hawkers by foot, trying not to get overridden or robbed as we figured. But the taxi wasn’t a good idea either, as we got stuck on the way to the shopping mall with a flat tyre, and even the spare tyre was flat. After an ordeal of two hours and a horrendous additional thirty US Dollars added to our weekly shopping expenses for transport, we decided, we needed another solution. Hiring a car was no option to us though. The coastal road from Mombasa through Mtwapa along the coast to the North is crowded by lawless drivers, which won’t even bother with basics like brakes on their cars that don’t work. They drive either on the left or the right side of the road, depending on which side the traffic moves faster and most of the time in several rows. It’s a battle of – the stronger survives – on the roads of Kenya. The only target in the driver’s mind seems to be, to get as fast as possible to ones destination not matter what the costs. We considered it more safe to battle the non-existent sidewalk along the busy road on foot, carrying our purse and shopping bags protectively and jumping over puddles of water to escape passing vehicles.
As Kenya is a country near the equator, it gets a lot of rain, often in short bursts. Being a third world country most streets aren’t paved and do not have appropriate drains. The road in the middle of Mtwapa, which we had to walk to get to the main road, was one day so full of mud, that heavy machines had to dug a channel along the street and paved the road up to a higher level to get rid of the pouring water. Needless to say, that there was no thought about, where pedestrians had to walk! We decided to take a tuktuk back to our place as I’d been dragging my shoes through the mud on the way to the shop already. Despite the chaotic driving style that was not a bad experience at all. It motivated us later to use this mode of transport for further explorations.
One day our gardener was sitting on the ground with a pale face calling for help as a snake had bitten him. I saw the two bleeding holes, undoubtedly a worrying sign of the fangs, which had clasped his ankle. Only a day before, we’d encountered a green, poisonous looking snake at the window to our kitchen. George had removed it with a broom, putting it cautiously in the shrubs at the slope to the river. “You must kill!”, Whambui, the gardener had said worriedly, when we told him. “No, no, you must not kill snakes, George had answered confidently, as we are people, who want to protect wildlife and not kill it. “But it will bite you!”, he’d said in a concerned voice. We’d shrugged off his concerns and felt therefore terribly guilty seeing him suffering snakebite just a day after. He refused bashfully any help to get him to the hospital, which left us even more troubled. Luckily he seemed alright, when we phoned to check on him an hour later. We had given him the money for the treatment and taxi to be able to pay, whatever was necessary. Not a big amount to us, but surely for him, as he would have had to work two weeks for it.
Needless to say, we learned a lot from this house sit like to check out the place much better on Google earth for example and to pose more questions, before taking an assignment. We also learned the hard way to ask the owner to sign the amount, which is given to pay for all the expenses at the beginning and to write down everything, even if there is no slip and even if the house sitters own money pays for it. Otherwise there will be a sour taste in your mouth, if the owner has a forgetful mind and makes you pay for an imaginary amount.
Most shameful was, that the owner made the gardener work for the money, we had given him for the hospital. We’d stupidly noted the amount in the booklet with the expenses. She was so wired, that she thought he’d owed her that amount. Neither the gardener nor we were able to convince her of the opposite. Most probably she just had been looking for another way to make his life miserable, which she seemed to enjoy. How terrible it must be, to work as a gardener for a lady, who is stuck in the old colonial, snobbish behaviour against her employee. We felt awfully ashamed of her disgusting abuse of a simple friendly worker.
Despite all stumbles, not all was bad during our house sit. We did a few excursions to the coast and ate at local restaurants. It was good to see a totally different culture and to live as an expat for a while. We experienced friendly, helpful Kenyans, but also bugging hawkers along the beach and a few on the streets as well. Mtwapa is a party town full of life and entertainment for people, who like nightlife. Not quite what we are looking for as wildlife and nature lovers though. We observed copious foreigners, mainly European men with young local women, enjoying their pension in a cheap and good enough lifestyle. But most of all we were dumbfounded by the mind-boggling deteriorating infrastructure with power cuts numerous times a day. The sights of cows searching for food on dumps along the roads was as mind boggling as the knowledge that a town like Mombasa with about one million people had only one fire truck till a charity from Germany helped out with another one. Two fire trucks for a town of that size! That’s not because the Kenyans don’t have the money for more. They just don’t care about their own country people. I get irritated, when I think of the salaries and fringe benefits, which the Presidents and politicians in Kenya and other African countries enjoy and meanwhile they turn a blind eye on their duties to provide decent infrastructure. Rather they enrich themselves and their grand families and put as much money in their own pockets as possible during their terms of reign.
Having said that, I’m sure that we will be going back to a third world country again later on despite these back draws, only because most of them still have some of the best protected wildlife reserves. Most probably it won’t be Kenya, as the country has a disturbing pricing philosophy targeting only the overly wealthy tourist and surely not the average traveller. Foreigners have to pay about five times the price of a Kenyan resident for entrance fees into the National Wildlife Parks. We hope Kenya has the common sense to protect its natural treasures of wildlife accurately with this money at least.
So, this time, not just a happy travel story as usual, but some deep thoughts and troubles. But also that belongs to travels. Live and learn – as the saying goes.
Previously posted on Grey World Nomads’ Blog