It’s Monday evening, approaching what will be our third night in Africa; after traveling 4 hours (through a hailstorm!) on roads that almost defy description, our group has arrived in a community just north of the Equator. It’s called Bungoma; I have no idea what the word exactly means in Swahili—but several English translation possibilities come to mind. Bungoma is not the jewel of Kenya, not by any means. But it is home to a lot of people, and the population has just grown by 12. Bungoma will be our home-base for the next three days.
Travis and I, along with our group of a dozen, have just recently checked in to what might possibly be the worst hotel in the world. It is the Bungoma Tourist Hotel, or the Hotel Tourist Bungoma, depending on which signage you read; it is a dilapidated and barely-functional hostelry that reminds me a lot of some of the hotels where I stayed in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union some 2 decades ago. I thought those hotels were bad, most of them languishing in rural forgotten and forlorn places, having lost their luster long before Lenin was stuffed and sitting behind glass at the Kremlin. Lenin would have liked the Hotel Tourist Bungoma; most dead guys would. If you’ve ever seen a picture of hotels in a bombed-out Beruit or battered Lebanon on the six o’clock news, you’ve pretty much seen this place. Windows here are more theoretical than reality. We’re given clunky silver keys on a wooden key fob and ours is room 13, which seems appropriately ominous.
As nightfall approaches and the mosquitoes of death begin swarming, Travis and I step into our half of a hotel duplex, the place that we’ll be returning to the next three nights after our daily school “safaris”, and it doesn’t take more than 15 seconds to realize that it’s not as bad as I thought it might be…it’s worse. Our little cursory discovery tour of the bathroom finds it to be quite the plumbing chamber of horrors. There is a significant hole that has been hacked into the side of the tub surround, no doubt to provide access to faulty plumbing. A constant trickle of water splashes from the spout, the drip a fluid arrow that lands in the bulls-eye of a permanent rust stain etched into the porcelain glaze of the tub. The mixing valve has so many valves and handles on it that it looks like a submarine–said valves all culminating in an exposed pipe that runs up the wall then elbows about 18 inches over into a showerhead complete with electrical wiring. Yup, electrical wiring. Running into a showerhead. This is just wrong at so many levels. I’m thinking all of sudden that showers are perhaps over-rated.
Travis refers to this arrangement as a “widow-maker”—a terminology which brings me great comfort. It is a fairly common set up outside the western world, a device that actually heats the water electrically as it flows through the shower head. Technically, it’s a “point of use” device. Personally, it looks like a “point of electrocution” device. Specifically, it scares the heck out of me; we’re a long way from the Underwriter’s Laboratories! So, in the guise of careful research, we flip the switch on the wall and rotate the valve; the pipes rattle as the water squeals up the pipe and then comes forth. But it doesn’t flow down from the shower head which seems to be completely stopped up. It flows up and over the shower head, covering the electrical wires that feed it, then blasting off in all directions. This just gets better and better! In one quick move that defies all common sense I thrust my hand into the water flow, which isn’t warm at all, which means that it doesn’t work anyway, so we won’t be risking the widow maker. Good. One problem solved.
Leaving the bathroom without mentioning the strange quirks of European toilets, the bedroom, equipped (and pretty much filled) with two double beds, is just around the corner. It is dimly lit, one bare bulb in the ceiling that flickers ominously and the light from which fails in any attempt to illuminate the whole room. There is a dresser, from the 50’s I’d say, which looks a lot like the one my parents had in their bedroom back home. There’s actually a TV on one of the dresser’s pedestals; it doesn’t work. In the dresser I find a Bungoma Gideon Bible, the one source of light in the room, which I momentarily think about stealing to bring home to a local Gideon. There is a tiny round white fluted saucer, from the same era as the dresser, adorned with two tiny smiley-face hard candies, a touch of elegance that is supposed to perhaps offset the gloom? And oh, the artwork! Two plasticized 3-D photos of African wildlife sit above us, balanced lazily on the dusty valance above the two windows.
There are two beds but only one mosquito net. You couldn’t miss the large sign posted at the downtown crossroads, “Malaria Area”—so the nets seem like more than a luxury here. Space does not allow me to adequately describe the sleeping arrangement Travis and I finally arrive at, in the attempt to share said net. I’ll leave this to your imagination, and to Travis I’ll say, “Well, no matter what the future holds, we’ll always have that night in Bungoma.” Actually, three nights.
I could go on and on about the Hotel Tourist Bungoma, and surely will have more to say later. We are laughing as we whine a bit about the accommodations here—but please understand that we are not laughing at Africa or the fact of the lackluster hotel in which we sit. We have lots of Bungomas and derelict hotels in Amarillo! If anything, we are laughing at ourselves because we are such spoiled Americans, and so unaccustomed to most any kind of hardship. As I grinch about the bathroom, I’m instantly taken back to where I was not even eight hours before; I’m walking again in the Nyalenda slums of Kisumu, the slum in which most of the kids who attend the Ringroad Orphans school live, and probably some 500,000 other souls. It’s hard to know for sure how many, because there’s just no way to count people in slums. As I think about where they live every day, with little hope of escaping, I’m instantly humbled and I have to shut up. Compared to their living conditions, their world 24/7/365 for life, this place is the Taj Mahal. I’ll be here only three nights…