I can’t say for sure when the seeds of discontent sprouted. I just remember starting to feel my world growing smaller, a kind of darkness closing in, sealing me into place. Sometimes thinking about it made me sad. Then realizing that I was sad made me even sadder because I am one of those people who judge my own feelings. I thought that’s not how you’re supposed to feel about marriage. Other times thinking about it gave me palpitations. I’d run out of breath while sitting down. I had my first anxiety attack when I was fourteen years old so I knew to fight the ensuing bout of nausea with a lemon slice or orange wedge. That’s where the idea for aromatherapy came from.
This was also when I started to look forward to the tour circuits with my dad. Whenever one was coming up, I’d start feeling immense relief days before I even left the house. Then, of course, I’d end up feeling guilty about being so relieved.
The tour company is a family affair. My mom handles the travel and hotel bookings, my dad and I handle the airport shuttles. As often as we can book them, every month or so we do a tour circuit starting from Nairobi to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki. We call it the Kifaru leg because the last of northern white rhinos in the world there are the main attractions.
From there we head to Samburu for the crocodiles of Ewaso Ngiro, then onward to Nakuru for the flamingoes at the lake. Although this route has proved difficult lately owing to climate changes that are drying the Ewaso Ngiro River which tourists often find underwhelming. As well, Lake Nakuru isn’t the home of flamingoes as was once known. Pollution of the lake has caused them to migrate in search of food. They are now found in Lake Bogoria. More often than not these days we’re skipping the Mamba and Flamingo legs and opting to go to Tsavo and Amboseli for the man-eating lions and red elephants. Which makes up our Simba and Ndovu legs of the circuit.
When we go that route we must hit the Mara, which we call the Mbogo leg; it allows us to talk at length about the Wildebeest Migration when the tourists bring it up. Kiboko leg, by design, is always our last stop, named for the hippos of Lake Naivasha. We prefer it for its closeness to Nairobi for logistical purposes. Also, it hardly ever disappoints. There are lots of places to visit: Hell’s Gate, Olkaria Spa, Crescent Island, and the Dutch flower farms among other attractions. There’s never enough time to explore everything so the guests leave feeling nostalgic even before we get to the airport, which usually guarantees us repeat-business.
We have three other employees on the payroll. There’s Emma, our office admin, Paul, the accountant, and Kilonzo, a driver. Before I got certified as a tour guide, Kilonzo used to do the airport transfers while my dad did the long tours by himself. When I joined the company though, Mom insisted that Kilonzo be my dad’s relief driver on the circuits. I should’ve been the one to go (being a certified tour guide and all), but I was newly married. Mom didn’t think I should spend that much time away from home, even if it was for work. Correction: Mom didn’t think a woman should spend that much time away from home, even if it was for work. She might’ve mentioned that before I joined the tourism industry. Oh well. It didn’t bother me.
The real reason she didn’t want me to go was that Dad would never let me drive. And we all needed him to accept a relief driver. Every time he came back from circuits dog-tired, complaining about his back, his knee and that tricky stretch in the Mara where the road is now an ancient myth told among the locals. Not that he ever let Kilonzo drive, even with mom edging me out.
He’d say, “I don’t feel safe when he’s driving.”
“Then why don’t you hire a better driver?” we’d ask.
“These youngsters these days,” he’d shrug. “They’re all the same. Bullies on the road. No sense of judgment.”
Kilonzo was forty-five years old at the time – not the first guy that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘youngster’. More so because years on the road had made him pudgy and weathered his face. He could’ve passed for a fifty-year-old. Anyway, when my dad pulled the age card, we all quietly retreated, knowing that was the gavel he used to scatter interventions he didn’t care for.
I didn’t enjoy the airport transfers much. There was the traffic, firstly, then the urgency factor. Airport pick-ups are easy. By myself, I can manage my own time effectively. It is hotel pick-ups that are a knot in my shoulders. There’s always something. A delayed check-out that eats into the time I have to get to the airport. Or a luggage issue with guests who’ve done a little too much shopping. It takes time and a particular skill to fit everything into the shuttle. Then hotel security decides to open the boot – you know, in case there’s a branded hotel umbrella among the curios and souvenirs – and out pours all my hard work. Sigh.
A missed flight is bad for business. It’s a distinct kind of hell that tourists not only don’t ever forget but also feel the need to post scathing reviews about. For posterity. So on the days when I have two hours to get to the airport and Google Maps is estimating it’ll take three hours and fourteen minutes on the shortest route, I channel my inner miraa pick-up driver and make up for time lost. Yes, I’m the kind of girl who can floor it.
That aside, when I did start to feel trapped, I started to bemoan a way out of the suffocation. I didn’t actively look for a way out – that would require me to admit to myself that there was something off in the marriage that I was running from. It’s taken some degree of self-reflection in these later years to realize that I have been an avoidant person in disguise all along. Before then, I was carrying on as usual; hopping, skipping, and ducking any opening for threatening feelings or confrontations.
My ducks got in a row on their initiative; the opportunity to get away came to me. It happened like this. My younger brother finished high school and spent all of three months catching up on all the drinking, weed and video games he’d missed. Mark is the kind of solitary animal that holes up in the house for days, only coming out at night to hunt. In this case, it’s more like crossing the threshold from his house, which is a rental in my parents’ back yard, to go into mom’s kitchen for supper. Every few days he and mom went at each other’s throats about the drinking, the weed, the bad company…The bit about the bad company would make my brother snort seeing how the only contact he had with the outside world was this one neighborhood chic who was actually his dealer. She baked weed into cookies. Mom would take it to mean that he wasn’t taking her seriously – which he wasn’t – and say, “Wait till your father gets home.”
Dad’s way of dealing with it was to issue a stern warning about renting out my brother’s house, forcing him to move back into his mother’s house. Aah. Kenyan parents and the threat of shame. I occasionally got him to come on airport transfers with me during his interludes of sobriety. He even signed up for driving school once he realized that shuttling was a form of solitude that paid. But then he would soon return to his old ways and my parents realized they needed to change tack.
Kilonzo got booted back to airport transfers and my dad started taking Mark with him. It went exactly as you might expect. Dad ordered him around, lectured him when he couldn’t escape the shuttle, and criticized his clothes, hair, and jewelry. The baby locks on Mark’s head and the silver chain he wore were of particular vexation to my dad.
Mark, on the other hand, steered the wheel with one hand, flirted with guests despite my dad’s disapproving looks, and used his tips to buy booze instead of pay for his share of accommodation. It was mostly harmless, last-born brat, only-son, teenage bosh, but it got my dad’s goat all the same. Two circuits down the line they’d both had enough of each other. That was when Mark approached me about swapping.
“I don’t want to trade,” I said. “I get mad tips. Plus Mom and Dad will never let you handle ATs on your own.”
“They will if you tell them I can handle it.”
“Not with your drinking. Dad says you’re turning out like Uncle Kihara.”
“I drink for fun! Uncle Kihara is a drunkard.”
“He’s a high functioning alcoholic. How do we know it’s not the same thing?”
“Yeah, but how do we know? You drink whiskey and you drink alone.”
“You drink whiskey and you’re a woman.”
“Brooo…that’s weak man,” I laughed. “I don’t drink as much as you or nearly as frequently as you do.”
That ruffled his feathers. “Fine then. Forget it.”
“No, no. Don’t do that. Improve your argument. I can’t get Mom and Dad to trust you. You haven’t demonstrated your trustworthiness thus far.”
“What do I do?”
“Prove to them that you can do it. Go on two more tours with Dad. But this time, do it differently.”
“Start wearing khakis for one. And polos. You know there’s a uniform, right?” He groaned. “And, if you want Dad to put on the payroll, tell him you’ll start paying rent for your house. Tell him to take it out of your salary.”
In the two months I had bought myself, I started making adjustments in my own home. Mundia wouldn’t like the new arrangement. It wasn’t that he had any problem cooking and doing his laundry for a few weeks now and then. No. It was something more subtle than that. Beneath the glossy veneer of our marriage, we both knew that I was a kite tangled in a tree branch. For the moment, I was tethered. But if a gust came along and freed me, he’d lose his grip on me and I may never go back. Still, he took it like a soldier.
“It’s what needs to be done so let’s do it,” he said. It’s the type of response that when you’ve known someone long enough, you know they’re setting you up to push them. If I pushed him, it would go a little bit like this.
“You don’t sound too enthusiastic about it. I’ll finally get to do real tour guide stuff. Plus you know I’ve been brushing up on my bird knowledge.”
“No it’s fine, I support you.”
“You’re really okay with it?”
“I wouldn’t say that exactly,” he’d cross his legs and flip to the next page of a newspaper or other distraction. Anything to avoid eye contact.
“You’re not okay with it.” I would arrange my palms on each other on my lap – a nervous habit.
“It’s not ideal. I think even you know it’s a big adjustment to ask of me. But if I say no, I’m the bad guy who doesn’t support your dreams –”
There, right there is where everything would flip on its head and what I wanted would fly out of reach. So instead of pushing, I took him at his word. That may very well have been the pivotal event that began unspooling our marriage. The beginnings of the kind of weariness you don’t resurrect from. Besides, had I decided against taking the tours, I probably would’ve never gone to that hotel and met the eucalyptus man.
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