A stolen mo­ment of amuse­ment


In 1974 I was young, reck­less and ad­ven­tur­ous. I had “done” Asia and Europe on the cheap. Now it was Africa’s turn. Fi­nances were low, so I de­cided to hitch­hike from Nairobi to Jo­han­nes­burg. The first day went well and I was dropped off in the early evening on the out­skirts of Arusha in Tan­za­nia, a sprawl­ing, dusty town. It grew rapidly darker as I trudged from one ho­tel to an­other in search of in­ex­pen­sive lodg­ing.

I was hav­ing no luck; com­pared with Asia, prices were high. I tried to bar­gain, but with no suc­cess. Fi­nally, one innkeeper men­tioned that he had a “share room” that might suit my bud­get. He led me to a large con­crete space, quite bare but for a bed against each wall.

On one lay an old Kikuyu man, wrapped in a dusty great­coat, with a felt hat on his head. Be­neath the bed were his be­long­ings — a clus­ter of knobker­ries (fight­ing sticks) and what ap­peared to be a short spear. He glanced at me with com­plete lack of in­ter­est. On the other bed sat a young high school stu­dent. He had a cheer­ful grin and spoke some English. I set­tled in for the night, but not be­fore squeez­ing my ruck­sack be­tween the bed and the wall and sur­rep­ti­tiously ty­ing it to my watch­strap (pru­dent in any dorm ac­com­mo­da­tion). We all dozed off.

Sud­denly I woke with a start. The door had burst open and the naked light bulb flashed on. In the cen­tre of the room stood the innkeeper with a de­cid­edly shady-look­ing char­ac­ter, ine­bri­ated and with a large ma­chete hang­ing from his belt. I must have gone quite pale. “This is it,” I thought. “I’m done for. This is what you get for be­ing such a cheap­skate.”

The two in­trud­ers had a heated ex­change. And then, sud­denly, the new guest mum­bled some­thing, spun around and left. The door slammed shut and the light went out. My room-mates whis­pered to­gether and burst into rau­cous laugh­ter. “What was that about?” I asked the stu­dent. “The owner was try­ing to sell him the last bed,” he replied. “I thought so,” I said, “but why did he leave?” “He said he couldn’t pos­si­bly stay here. It looked too dan­ger­ous. He might get robbed.”

I, too, chuck­led and then slept well. In my mi­nus­cule travel di­ary is a short en­try: Arusha — didn’t get robbed. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au. Columnists will re­ceive a boxed set of five x 7. 5ml sig­na­ture scents from French fra­grance house Ate­lier Cologne, $79. More: (02) 8002 4488; agencede­par­fum.com.au.

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