Easter is around the corner and we have family coming to stay- hooray!! It’s a great opportunity to catch up over a couple of weeks, making the most of the plentiful leisure time to sip tea, coffee and beer whilst sitting about and catching up.
If we were living in England we might do an odd weekend or Sunday lunch with family or friends – a quick catch up, then head on home to collapse in front of the tv. Chatty telephone conversations would be more frequent if we lived in the UK, thus filling the yawning gap that always grows between friends and relatives during the months that you are living on different continents. After ten months, Email and Skype just doesn’t cut it any more. When friends and family arrive here, their fate is often totally in our hands. If they want to pop out to get more sun cream or post some letters they find themselves having to ask us hosts for a lift first. Only a few people are brave or fool hardy enough to get behind the wheel and brave the unpredictable African traffic.
Booking holidays for friends and family …Though there is one small glitch with having visitors – it’s the perennial problem of booking their African holidays. Most people would like to see a bit more than our garden and the local shops when they get here, as in reality it’s all rather mundane. When family or friends come to see us in Africa it’s certainly viewed as ostensibly a holiday, for some it is even; ‘the holiday of a lifetime!’ Not too much pressure then! Often, as you are playing host and assumed expert in your chosen country of residence, you are asked to suggest the perfect lodge, hotel or park for your guests. This always means undertaking a lot of research, seeking advice, making bookings and when possible accompanying your visitors. In making plans one must bear in mind other people’s personal budgets, requirements, expectations, preferences, timings and flight schedules. While having visitors often gives us as a family a fabulous excuse to explore the country we’re living in, with the people you love best and don’t see enough of, the planning stages can be stressful as confusing emailed itineraries and price details bounce between you.
Whether it’s a beach holiday or a bush safari there is so much to bear in mind. Some lodges are not ideal for small children with open plan tents, no babysitting facilities and precipitous craggy drop offs around dining and accommodation areas. Some visitors want value for money most of all, whilst others want to pay more for something unforgettable. Some people can’t stand the humidity of the coast at this time of year, but you won’t find that out until you arrive and it’s already too late.
Seeking Advice During the weeks running up to the arrival of your guests, all of us expats (without exception) get our knickers in a complete twist. We charge around like wild things researching various destinations by spending hours with harried travel agents and most of all conducting ad hoc polls amongst our friends wherever and whenever we happen to run in to them: i.e. the supermarket, the gym, restaurants, children’s tea parties etc. It goes something like this: ‘Have you been to X? What is it like? What did you pay? Can you go there during the rains? Did you see much game? Did you get malaria? What are the bedrooms like? Is there room for a cot? How is the service? How was the food? How long does it take to get there? Did you drive? Is there a swimming pool?’ The non committal answers go something like this: ‘It was lovely, but we went over a year ago and they have changed management since then.’ Or: ‘We thought it was nice, but didn’t pay THAT much.’ Or: ‘I’ve never been there, but Y has, why not give her a call?’ And on it goes, round and round in circles.
The Disasters Then there are the occasional disasters and high expectations are sometimes not met. For instance: your guests’ internal flight gets cancelled or they are unexpectedly bumped off the passenger list. One person gets food poisoning or is ill on holiday thus ruining it. Someone is car sick on the lengthy car journey or gets a migraine. An elderly relative has a fall. A child has a high fever and the parents are worried sick about malaria. The hotel or lodge is uncomfortable or tired and dated. The beach hotel is full of chavs. The weather is unseasonably wet (Christmas 2006 was a wash out). A big fear when we intrepidly set out in convoy in our two cars, me behind the wheel in one, my husband driving the other, to far flung Kenyan destinations with trusting house guests strapped safely in, is the danger of having a horrendous car accident. There are constant reminders along the road in the form of smashed up buses and overturned lorries in road sidings. The pressure is huge and then when you arrive you are just willing everything to be perfect.
The other problem is that in Kenya most holidays must be pre paid for, to a booking agent and you often wind up having to cough up for the total cost in advance of your guests arrival. This means you must then bring up the subject of money as soon as they step off their plane feeling jet lagged or rather run the risk of being insolvent.
Last Christmas a friend’s brother arrived at the coast having had a seriously delayed flight, the airline revealed that they had lost his and his family’s luggage, then he got to the beach hotel that they had booked online had found it had literally just burned to the ground and in fact was still smouldering! My friend said: ‘My brother wouldn’t listen to my advice; I could have told him it was a dodgy hotel.’ Other friends had UK guests staying over the fraught election time and spent days debating whether to cancel their swanky New Year private safari to Tsavo, as they were too terrified to drive out of Nairobi (understandably). The whole thing turned into a total nightmare when they were later told by the tour operator that they would not be reimbursed for the cancellation yet my friends had paid everything up front. Civil unrest is not covered.
Wildlife Wildlife can be a problem too, especially for unseasoned travellers when snakes, scorpions, cockroaches or geckos get uncomfortably close. After some years you tend to get a little more relaxed about armies of siafu ants on the move, or at least have learned to disguise your horror.
In addition, the number of times we have persuaded guests to fork out many dollars to ‘Kenya Wildlife Service’ for a picnic in Nairobi National Park, only to be bitterly disappointed when there are no sightings of ‘the big five’. I’ve lived in East Africa for nine years and have only ever seen a wild leopard once – and that time it was hardly a great photo opportunity as I spotted it strolling through the camp we were staying in during the middle of the night, through the window of my room. For years after moving out here I proudly told friends back home: ‘I’ve never seen a lion in Africa, only in Longleat safari park in Wiltshire.’
Visiting England Of course it works both ways. When we go back to England we arrive en masse – eating our way through tons of food laid on by our ever patient hosts, cluttering/messing up their houses and using/abusing their homes as hotels whilst dropping in and out between visits to friends, exhausted children tagging along and whinging behind us. We cause the utmost inconvenience by requisitioning family cars for weeks on end and then leave thousands of shopping bags scattered in our wake, the contents of which must be somehow later miraculously be squashed into holdalls days before departure. Trails of children’s toys, laundry, discarded shopping bags and shoe boxes are left behind as our hosts’ wave us off – noticeably relieved. After our last visit my Dad slipped and fell on a rogue piece of lego that was still lurking on the dining room floor.
This Easter Weekend Well this Easter, after the most agonising ever research process, I’ve booked a house in the much televised Lewa conservancy in Laikipia. We have always wanted to go there. It’s apparently a ‘not for profit’ conservation area, but we are paying a handsome price for the privilege of visiting – in spite of high hopes of massive reductions following post election chaos. Incredibly, only green cars are allowed within the reserve and by a miraculous stroke of luck, both of ours are indeed the requisite camouflage colour. We were thinking of asking some friends along, but I’m not sure that their blue 4x4 would be allowed.
One thing is certain, once the stress and strain of making the bookings is done and you set off, you too are on holiday and we unfailingly have a wonderful time making the fearful pre holiday sweat all very much worthwhile.