We walked through the narrow portal in the cinderblock wall. A tall, wrought Iron gate clanked loudly as it closed behind us, keeping the honest people honest. The street below our feet was rough and rocky, but none the less a late model Nissan sedan eased its way up the road, passing us in the narrow confines. I had woken up just an hour before and had landed on the continent a mere eight hours before that. After the car had passed we turned and headed out the maze of streets, aiming for the bus stop aka, the junction with the main road. It was Sulley’s duty to show me around. “Hit the local watering holes” as Muthoni would put it later.
I had touched down at 0110 hours that morning. It was now 1030-ish. The plane had been a big one, a 737-900 ER, and it had been moderately full, but only a 16 or so of us stood up, gathered our items, and descended the steps into the humid, equatorially darkness. The rest stayed put, bound for Mombasa. Cool temps and a light breeze moving through the moist air made for a mildly pleasant walk across the tarmac. The terminal rivaled my originating airport in size and it felt right; though, like similar destination airports of Calafate or Balmaceda it was designed to handle bigger planes. Its small time interior however belied it big plane capacity. Rows of wooden tables stood tall in the middle of the lobby, piles of photocopied visa applications sat neatly along them. I dug out a pen and dropped my carry-on to the floor. It didn’t seem like this would be much of a process.
I scanned the room. Two men looking for clients from REI and Mountain Adventures stood there, holding signs, scanning the scant few of us. Nobody seemed to pay them any mind. Despite my peering, I saw nothing that resembled a NOLS logo, old or new. I picked up my bag and my completed application and moved to the line under the sign “I Need A Visa.” I rooted around for a fresh Benjamin and got set to wait my turn. Now as I waited nervously, I tuned into the music emanating from the TV screen overhead and found a smile crossing my lips. Sugarland’s “Why Don’t You Stay” from the early part of this century was playing on the TV. “Had I found my place?” I wondered as I softly sang along. Guess it wasn’t that different than Riverton after all. Cowboy country to cowboy country.
The man motioned me forward and I slid my paper and my passport across the hardwood counter and under the arched slot in the glass window. He looked it over. Between him and his partner sat a beat up cardboard box. He turned and spoke rapidly to her in Kiswahili as she deposited another hundred dollar bill into the half-filled box. “Look at the camera” he said as he turned back to me. I did as asked. Something happened in that little box, not sure what, but something. I guess it took my picture. “One hundred dollars.” I reached into my chest pocket and pulled one out, sliding it the same as my papers. He slid my papers back out and tossed the hundred into the box. “Line two” he said, gesturing to the left and not looking up. “Next.”
“Asante” i mumble as I walk in the direction indicated. I scan the dimly lit hall beyond the immigration officers and see my luggage on a conveyor belt and the two unsuccessful “greeters” looking for clients. But nothing from NOLS. I try not to look obvious, try not to look illegal and walk up to the Line Two officer.
“Where are you staying?” he asked after reviewing my passport.
“Somewhere in Arusha” I paused. “I should have a friend meeting me here to take me home to their place” I add after a short silence. More cameras. More fingerprints. A stamp, a sticker, a nod, and a welcome. I turned and walked toward the giant red backpack sitting alone on the conveyor belt. A slight man handed me a smart cart and ran around to grab my similarly tagged duffle bag. He helped me pile both of them onto the cart and pointed me toward the inspection station, a lonely x-ray machine of what appeared dubious functionality. I dumped my three bags on the belt, which worked them through the machine. Five feet away I reloaded them onto the cart and pushed them back off into the night and the parking lot. Outside I am greeted by Sulley and Frank, two smiling men holding a NOLS flag. I guess these are my peeps.
Featured Image: An invasive ornamental in NOLS East Africa’s courtyard—lantana camara