Shivananda talks about his first trip to Africa and his adventures with his new, intrepid friend.
In 1970 I went to work in South Africa as a film stripper at a weekly magazine in Johannesburg. After 1 1/2 years I travelled back to Europe overland, mostly hitch-hiking, and in Kenya I met a young American from Indiana, called Kevin, in Nairobi’s Youth Hostel. We immediately liked each other. He emanated an enthusiastic craziness.
For example, one day we took an excursion on a bus from Nairobi to Mombasa. In the middle of the ride he suddenly saw a mountain on the right-hand side and said, “Hey man, look at that mountain. I want to climb up there!” He made the driver stop the bus and said to me, “I am going to that mountain, are you coming with me?”
I was not so sure because we were in the middle of the bush. But the unknown and the call of adventure were stronger. So off we walked right into the bush with no sign of any houses or people. If you have ever been to Africa, you know what I mean when I say, “There is this vast feeling.” There is so much open sky and the horizon is so distant. When I first came to Africa I fell in love with this vastness, this overwhelming feeling of wild nature.
I was living my wildness through Kevin. He had the courage to do things which I thought were absolutely crazy, but I could still see that it was exciting and much closer to life – and together we were even more daring. We encouraged and triggered each other to do more crazy things. Kevin had a way with people, he was so easy-going. He would walk up to anybody and talk. He went up to them in a very emotional way. One picture comes to mind: we were hitch-hiking, standing on the road. He became all excited when somebody approached by car and when they drove past without stopping he could get really angry and showed them his middle finger. All his emotions were out there. He could not hold them back.
Kevin would have probably behaved differently if I hadn’t been with him; he would have probably gotten into difficult situations. I was more rational and sometimes refused to go along with his ideas. For instance, when we later travelled together in India, he wanted to climb Mount Everest. I said “No, I will not go alone (without professional mountain guides), it’s too cold and I do not have the ambition to climb the highest mountain on the planet.” We compensated each other; I was more calm, rational, less emotional and, I suppose, more down-to-earth, not by Swiss standards, but compared to him, I certainly was.
We were both interested in new adventures. Kevin was on fire and lived very much in the moment. We would comment on what we saw around us, maybe it was an animal, the sky; there was an immediate contact with nature. We would talk only about things that happened in the moment, such as, “I am thirsty!” – only rarely did we tell each other stories from the past.
He was a visionary. He had great visions about humanity, about his life. He wanted to become a famous writer. He carried so many books with him. He was interested in the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran and the Bible. He carried a typewriter, and I carried a guitar. Yet he earned his money not with writing but labour, with construction work back in the States or wherever he was travelling through. Many people liked his infectious enthusiasm and his aliveness. He was very proud to be an American.
While walking towards that mountain we had seen from the bus, after about an hour we suddenly saw a child emerging from behind a bush. It looked at us in surprise and shouted something in Swahili. From far away we heard that somebody shouted back. In Africa I have seen people having long conversations over long distances. Their shouts sound more like a song. Soon we were surrounded by more children and finally a tall man approached us and asked in English, “Where are you going?“
He invited us to his village where we were surrounded by a lively crowd. It was obvious that the English-speaking man was the leader and he was very proud to have us there as his guests. We enjoyed the unexpected event, had dinner with the whole family while a big crowd was watching. I remember we ate some meat in a very spicy sauce together with ugali (a paste made from corn). We even slept there; they gave us two grass mats which we spread out on the floor.
Africans are used to sleep on hard ground and since it was difficult for me to sleep like that I always carried an air mattress with me. When I blew up my beautiful blue mattress it created a big show; everybody wanted to see this strange thing; they laughed and wanted to jump or lie on it. I think the news of the mattress got even around to neighbouring villages because more and more excited and laughing people came to see this strange object.
Finally, our host closed the door of the hut; it was a small round mud hut with a thatched roof. We were about six people sleeping in it. In the middle of the night I woke up and felt something fall from the roof straight on top of me and then crawl over me. I switched on my torch and saw a few rats running away. In the morning, when I mentioned the rats to the owner, he laughed and just said, “Yes, rats, rats.” Obviously, he was not disturbed by them.
In case you are wondering; we never reached that mountain. One reason was that the villagers started to advise us to go here and there and wanted to pass us on to their relatives. Finally, we were happy to get away and found our way back to the main road. After hitch-hiking for a few days, we arrived in Mombasa and stayed in one of the travellers’ lodges in the old town near the harbour. As travellers do, there was an exchange of ideas and we heard that an interesting thing to do around Mombasa was to travel to Lamu, an island on the north coast of Kenya. Some of us went to the harbour and asked the Arabs for a passage. They regularly sail from Somalia to Kenya carrying goats and live cattle and, on the way back, being empty, could take passengers for a small fee. The ship was an old Arab dhow, a two-master.
The sea was quite rough and because it was empty, the ship was like a nut shell on the ocean waves, bumping up and down. We all got sea sick, the six of us lying in our sleeping bags on the deck of the boat, constantly throwing up. It was such a mess. The Arabs were laughing. They brought us spicy meat and rice, which nobody could eat. Then, with a steel wire line they caught a fish that was at least one meter long. They pulled it up on deck and the fish jumped onto us. We freaked out about that heavy, wet and slippery fish on our sleeping bags! Two nights and three days on that boat! On the third day, when we finally got over the sea sickness, we arrived in Lamu, totally wasted and weak.
Lamu in those days was like something out of 1001 Nights. There was the harbour town with the narrow streets; all women were veiled in black, there were many mosques and people were very friendly. One of the main attractions on the island was that there were no cars. Everybody was travelling by bicycle or on a donkey. Nearby were gorgeous beaches. The place we stayed at was an Arab house with beautiful courtyards; we had our mattresses on top of the roof overlooking the city. All houses were whitewashed. We enjoyed the place and made excursions to mangrove lagoons. Kevin and I decided not to return by boat but took a ferry to the mainland and then a bus to Mombasa and on to Nairobi.
One of Kevin’s dreams was to travel through the Congo (now called Zaire). I liked the idea, so together we hitch-hiked from Nairobi to Uganda. At the time Idi Amin was in power and the country was at war. In Kampala, the capital of Uganda, we stayed in a cheap hotel. We could hear bursts of machine gun fire and bombs and at night there was curfew.
Despite the curfew, one night Kevin said, “Here they sell the best grass (marijuana). Let’s go out and get some.” “No way,” I replied but he said, “This would really be a great chance. I am going!” I felt I could not forgive myself if something happened to him, so I went with him and we walked out into the deserted streets. It felt spooky. In a dark corner we saw a man and approached him. “Where can we buy bangi?” Wordlessly he mentioned us to follow him. The streets became narrower and narrower. At a small hut he stopped, knocked at the door and said something in Swahili. A man came out, looked at us and asked, “You want finger, hand or arm?” Kevin replied, “Arm” and shortly afterwards the man came out with a big paper bag full of grass. (The quantity was measured according to the size of our anatomy.)
We safely arrived back at the hotel and smoked a joint – and yes, it was really good stuff. Suddenly something dawned on me and I asked Kevin, “Do you know that tomorrow we will be crossing the border into the Congo? What are you going to do with all the dope?” He just said, “No problem, man. I will clean it all up and carry it in my underpants.” He prepared his ‘cargo’ for the journey, cleaning the grass sitting in a yoga posture on the table and nipping off the flower, which is the most valuable, i.e. the strongest part.
As he was wearing shorts, the bag of bangi stuck out from the bottom. This is how, the next day, we stood at the side of the road hitch-hiking. After about half an hour a long black limousine approached, slowed down and stopped. A tinted window slid down and a big black man, in a uniform with many medals and stars on his chest, asked, “Do you drive?” And Kevin with a broad smile said, “Sure I drive!” The uniformed man got out from the driver’s seat and commanded, “You drive!” and got into the back of the limousine behind a black glass partition. As soon as Kevin started driving, we could hear giggles from some girls and his laughter.
We thoroughly enjoyed these scenes, especially Kevin. That was his kind of movie: driving a black limousine with some high-ranking military officer and girls in the back through a war-torn country. When we approached a military road check, all soldiers stood to attention when they saw our limousine with the little flag on the wheel arch, until they noticed these two white hippies with long hair sitting in the front. I was scared when they pointed the machine guns at our heads, patiently waiting for the man in the back to open his window and give the green light. The same scene happened a few times on this drive through Uganda.
Kevin and I knew that we had to turn off at a certain junction, which happened to be in the middle of a game park. We were wondering how the man in the back would react if we turned off west towards the Congo, instead of going straight towards the north where he was heading. We stopped the car at the junction. There were no buildings around, just nature and the road signs. We knocked on his window and said to him, “Sorry, we are heading to the Congo. Our hike ends here.” He put on his cap, stepped out, said, “Thank you,” got into the driver’s seat and moved on. We were relieved that he took it so easy – he could have forced us to drive all the way to his destination.
We looked around and could not believe our eyes; there were elephants near-by, wildebeests, antelopes, and we realised that we were standing in the middle of the game park. Kevin was totally excited. He took out his Kodak Instamatic and said, “I have never managed to take a close shot of an elephant because I do not have a zoom lens, but now this is my chance.” With the camera in hand he started running towards the elephants. The group of elephants had also babies and, as Kevin approached, I saw them waving their ears. I knew that this is a sign that they might attack. I do not think Kevin knew that because he went even closer, taking pictures. In my head I started thinking, for some strange reason, what I would tell journalists if they came and asked me questions to write the story.
The elephants started to make their trumpeting sound and stomped their feet. I think that at this point Kevin finally got the message and started running back. He arrived totally excited and said to me, “Hey, man, I did it, I got the pictures, fantastic, far-out.” This is the kind of guy Kevin was.
After about an hour’s waiting at the crossing, a truck picked us up and brought us to the border of Uganda and the Congo. We had heard from other travellers that the border control was heavy. An officer searched our rucksacks; we even had to take off the stoppers of the metal frames in case we were hiding some drugs in there. In Uganda there was the death penalty for carrying drugs.
While this was going on, Kevin kept stuffing his bag out of sight back into his underpants. Because of his asthma attacks he always carried a spray medication with him, and when the border control found it, they insisted it contained drugs. Kevin kept shouting, “No, medicine!” And the officer shouted back, “Drugs, drugs!” After some time a second uniform came and luckily recognised what it was; they stamped our passports and we were out of Uganda. I did not really want to imagine what they would have done if they had found Kevin’s stash.
Soon afterwards we got a hike on a truck to the border of the Congo – a totally different scene; the border control official, before looking at our passports, invited us to his house for dinner. He had many children and Kevin loved children. Soon they were all over him, also pulling on his bag, and I kept drawing his attention to his stash. At one point he got up, asked for the bathroom, came back and said to me, “I flushed it all down. Ahhhhh, actually, I am so relieved now.” This was also my Kevin.
We had our passports stamped and eventually got to the first city, Mahagi. At this point it was already dark. I asked for a hotel in my broken French and a man directed us to a place which, when we got there, seemed a bit strange, but we were so tired that we took the room they gave us and immediately went to sleep.
In the middle of the night there was heavy pounding on the door and someone shouted, “Contrôle des passeports!” We opened the door and two men entered; we showed them our passports, they left and we went back to sleep. In the morning we realised that both our watches had disappeared and also some money. In situations like these Kevin could get very angry. We went to the reception of the hotel but nobody was in sight; in fact the whole hotel was empty. It might have been part of the whole scam.
Kevin and I went to the police to report the theft. It was mostly me doing the talking because I spoke some French. I tried to explain our situation and they immediately rushed us into a jeep and drove us to a house outside the city. They entered the house, dragged out a man and started beating him badly in front of us. We asked, “Why? Pourquoi?” They said, “He is the man.”
Ken and I both knew that it was not true; this was somebody totally different. We knew that they were using our complaint to accuse and get at somebody they had on their list. We felt so bad for the poor man. When we got back to the police station we were asked to fill out a loooong report in French. This was the moment we decided to escape. We both pretended to go to the bathroom but ran out of the building. We collected our rucksacks – which we had earlier deposited at a shop – and hoped to catch a ride before the police found us. Sure enough, a Congolese truck driver – who even spoke some English – picked us up and on went the journey towards the north (our destination was Bangui in Central Africa, now called Central African Republic).
We came to understand that for the truck driver it was prestigious to have two white people in his cockpit, so we travelled for free. It was enough to be white. On the way he picked up many other people in exchange for goods and services. He would give them rides on top of his amazingly large cargo in exchange for food, wooden sculptures, chickens, and sometimes even sexual favours. So it happened that he suddenly would stop somewhere and disappear with a women for a while; we never knew for how long it would be. At one point we waited for such a long time that I blew up my air mattress. Kevin also lied down, and we went to sleep on the side of the road. Suddenly the driver came back, woke us up and said, “Let’s go.” We realised at this point that he was like a king; with his job came a little power game.
We travelled through the jungle, crossed valleys and rivers. The truck was so heavily loaded that the driver had to give full gas down the hills and race over the narrow bridges to make it up the next hill. At the sides of each bridge we could see other trucks lying broken…
We stopped in a place in Zaire where, according to the driver, many pygmies lived. He went off with a woman, and Kevin became excited and wanted to see them. “I always wanted to make love with a pygmy.” “Kevin, you do not want to get a disease, do you?” But there was this cute pygmy trying to sell him peanuts and turn him on. Kevin was shaking with excitement and said, “I’m back in half an hour.” This was again typical Kevin! So different than me. I was much more cautious.
Back to Europe
After many more adventures of this kind we arrived in Bangui in Central Africa where, after two weeks, we took a plane to Nice in France. From there we hitch-hiked north, Kevin heading to Amsterdam where he then stayed with friends we had met in Africa, and I towards London where I stayed with a friend who was squatting in a villa. One night everybody in the house went to a concert of someone I had never heard of before, called Bob Marley. I wondered why everybody was crazy about his music. I liked the energy in the hall; 80% of the people were Jamaicans. Bob Marley was not famous yet, but the Jamaicans knew him. As soon as he entered the stage, everybody in the audience jumped on their seats and started screaming, and I wondered, “Who is this guy?”
After two months in London, I joined Kevin in Amsterdam and together we hitch-hiked to Switzerland. Kevin came to stay at my parents’ house. He could have long conversations with my mother; he spoke in English and she in Swiss German… They were both feeling types and even though they spoke in different languages they understood each other perfectly. My parents were very welcoming towards him.
Sometimes Kevin drank alcohol and my brother-in-law decided to ‘drink him under the table’, as we say in Switzerland. One evening we had Fondue, a Swiss national dish that consists of various melted cheeses, white wine, Kirsch Schnaps (cherry brandy) into which pieces of bread are dipped with the aid of long-stemmed forks. Kevin and my brother-in-law, on top of the alcohol already in the dish, splurged on white wine and later on Kirsch. No wonder that in the middle of the night Kevin threw up in bed. In Switzerland they say that Fondue vomit is the worst, because it has such a penetrating smell. It’s true, because we had to discard the mattress, the pillows and the bedsheets he had slept in. Kevin is mainly remembered at home because of this incident.
I have lost contact with Kevin, although I have tried to track him down through the internet.
Wherever you are, Kevin – you will always be in my heart as a crazy, wonderful friend…
Yes, this is my Kevin!
As told to Punya
More adventures in Africa and India: A winding approach
Shivananda was born in Switzerland. He worked as a trained typesetter and graphic designer, silkscreen printer, bookbinder and photographer. Twenty years ago he fully engaged himself as a painter, working in Brazil and Switzerland. Music, another expression of his creativity, has been his companion for all his life. He plays the guitar and sings. In summer he lives in Arillas on the Greek island Corfu, where he facilitates painting and singing workshops. shivananda.ch – more of Shivananda’s artwork on Osho News