May 25, 2016
Having lived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, very near the border with Mexico, in the mid-1970s, I learned the meaning of “mañana” early. Not the literal translation meaning “morning” or “tomorrow”, but the more general meaning of that “laissez-faire”, easy-going, things-will-get-done-when-they-get-done attitude that invariably teaches patience.
I hadn’t experienced a lot of the “mañana” mentality in a while, having spent more than a dozen years in hectic Southern California, and then another decade in the laid back but trendy Austin. Nor did my job allow for that lifestyle.
When I left last July and headed into Mexico, I was reminded of “mañana” and readily adjusted to it, since I was on no particular time schedule and had been preparing myself mentally for the inevitable breakdown or delay that might leave me temporarily stranded somewhere for days or even weeks at a time.
Over the seven months spent heading south through Latin America to the end of the world at Ushuaia, I had a few mañana encounters, but never anything that caused me more than a day or two delay. I easily laughed them off, especially when I observed other foreign travelers stressing out over things not going exactly as they had planned. (Note: if you can’t handle the idea of a waiter taking an extra 10 or 15 minutes totake your order or bring you the check without exploding in a tirade, it would be best if you stayed in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York.)
Then came Africa. A continent that has embraced “mañana” and taken it to extreme new heights. Nothing happens here quickly. Or even slowly, by most standards. The concept is evident nearly everywhere, in the physical surroundings as well as the daily interactions.
In most of the countries I passed through after Namibia, the road conditions were unpredictable, at best. In many cases, the road would go from deteriorated asphalt with large potholes, to no asphalt and simply dirt, mud, or sand with large potholes, to beautiful new pavement. I later learned that the Chinese have taken over road construction in much of Africa, and this explains the new pavement. Yet the construction times are still extremely long due to the use of mostly local labor and the lack of mechanical equipment to build the roads. Much of the construction process is still done by hand, even on the major highways.
It’s also evident in the buildings. Even in Nairobi, as I walked into a shopping center, the sidewalk was unfinished, and the tile-work on the stairs was unfinished, even though the building had clearly been open and operating for a couple of years. No one was working on these unfinished areas; they were simply unfinished, and walked away from. Parts of the parking lot near the building were still unpaved or crumbling. People walked through the mud puddles and across the unfinished entrance as if everything was normal. Which it is in Africa.
In many (but not all) of the places I stayed in Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, there was a common theme of frustration by business owners. They complained that they would hire people, train them, then have to re-train them again almost daily, as they seemed to forget the most simple of tasks overnight. I think much of this may be due to a “mañana”-type approach instilled over a lifetime.
People in Africa seem to begrudgingly accept this way of life, and it is often referred to as “Africa Time”. Things get done here in Africa Time. Nino, the Swiss cyclist I met at Jungle Junction, used the term “TIA”, for “This Is Africa”, any time a story was told about something taking a long time or multiple attempts to accomplish.
That’s not to say that everyone in Africa adheres to this regimen. Many of the employees I met along the way at various camps seemed to have a dedication to their work, and were able to perform their required jobs daily without supervision. They arrived on time, worked hard, and accomplished what they were asked. But the longer I traveled through East Africa, the more I realized that these people are the exception.
Things eventually do get done. Just don’t expect them to get done when promised, or on a schedule that you initially think may be reasonable.
I’ll use the shipping of my motorcycle as an example here. It took approximately three and a half days to put my motorcycle in a steel crate that already existed as a motorcycle shipping crate. Granted, in order to save a bit on shipping, the crate needed to be reduced in size, since the airline bases the price on volume. After two days, the crate’s length had been shortened. It was now actually about ten inches shorter than the bike, and the rear fender and taillight stuck out of the back of the crate. Oops. Well, TIA. Time to take a break (for a day) and reconsider the options. The next day, the solution was to try to pull the motorcycle forward in the crate using tie-down straps. This achieved the result of the front fender of the motorcycle sticking out of the crate, while the rear was still sticking out. Also, the crate was too narrow, so the panniers had to be removed from the bike. Unfortunately this left no place for the panniers to fit in the crate without either sticking out themselves, or rubbing against other parts of the motorcycle.
Oh well. TIA. A few zip ties and another tie-down strap, and the panniers were pulled tight against the engine of the bike.
Next was to reduce the height of the crate. Fifteen minutes later, the uprights were shortened. Now the handlebars were taller than the crate. Another day was taken off to consider the options again.
The next day, the handlebars were rotated back slightly, and the front of the bike was pulled down tighter using the tie-downs. Also, the right handguard was removed, as it was still taller than the crate.
At this point I had both accepted Africa Time, and given up on my bike actually arriving in London undamaged. This was the worst crating I had ever seen, especially since the starting point was a perfectly usable BMW motorcycle crate.
During the crating process, I contacted the shipping agency to arrange the shipping from Nairobi airport to London Heathrow. This also took several days of back-and-forth emails and phone calls. Each day, I would receive an email saying that they would email or call me again later in the afternoon with more information, but of course since we are on Africa Time, that email or call either came late that night, or the next day, and only after several follow-up calls and emails from me. Eventually I was told by the owner at Jungle Junction that nothing happens here unless you call every couple of hours.
Ultimately I informed the shipper that I would deliver the crate to them on Thursday afternoon at 3pm, not waiting for them or giving them the chance to drag it out further.
The bike was delivered, and I continued to wait for shipping details. Initially I was given an Airway Bill on Friday with information that the bike would go to London on a SwissAir flight via Zurich, but no specific date on when it might leave Nairobi. I continued to watch both the SwissAir tracking system online, and my GPS tracker (which I left in the crate so I could see where the bike was). Not surprisingly, there was no movement over the weekend. I kept reminding myself, “TIA”.
On Sunday evening I was advised via email that the crate would not fit on the connecting SwissAir flight from Zurich to London, and the shipping would have to be rescheduled. Later that night, I received a new Airway Bill with information that the bike would now be on a Turkish Airlines flight via Istanbul, but again no specific date on when it would leave. I continued to monitor both the Turkish Airlines tracking system online (which at this point didn’t even acknowledge that the Airway Bill number existed), and my GPS tracker. In anticipation that the bike might actually get on a plane in the next few days, I booked a flight to London and a hotel room near Heathrow. This was probably not wise, for several reasons. First, once I left Nairobi I would be unable to handle any additional shipping snafus in person if and when this failed, and secondly, the cost of a night’s stay in Nairobi was $11, versus over $100 a night for the London hotel room.
As of this morning, the bike has left Istanbul and is on its’ way to London. Hopefully by tomorrow I will know the condition of it and whether or not all of my gear that was also packed into the crate is still there.
For now at least, in hindsight, as long as you can accept TIA and Africa Time, things eventually do get done, and I would definitely use the same shipper again, though I would either crate the bike myself or use a different company to crate it.
More updates in a day or two. Barring any major damage, I hope to be on the road Thursday or Friday and headed for Scotland.