“Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish a lot.” –Blaise Pascal
The dimly lit City Hall Annex foyer was dusty and stuffy. The willy-nilly building, recently constructed next to the main City Hall building in Nairobi‘s central business district, already looked tired. It may have been partly due to the heavy traffic of people, some of them shady scavengers trying to make a kill from an already bleeding Council. Other people were probably making a return visit to chase after the mirage of nonexistent services from a bunch of coldhearted, lethargic workers. The biggest contribution to the dilapidation however may have been shoddy work done by cowboy contractors who demand full upfront payment from the bribe-hungry officials, only to spend a fraction of it on pitiable workmanship.
My eyes scanned around and located the shortest queue of people waiting to get into the lifts. After what seemed like eternity, a creaky elevator arrived, huffing and puffing. Before the doors could open, a shifty character that hadn’t been on any queue shamelessly sprung to the front like a cheetah hungry for a kill. He almost collided head on with the first passenger coming out of the lift. I got in when my turn came and repeatedly punched a button that wouldn’t light up in response. Then the lift hesitated, squealed, and hurtled off before making a violent stop on the first floor. It was going to be a bumpy ride to the fifth floor!
The receptionist at the travel agency was as pleasant in person as she had been on the phone. She offered a cup of coffee as she ushered me into Jane’s airy and elegant office. Jane, the firm’s proprietor, was full of grace and candor. Her slender figure and ebony face were accentuated by a beautiful broad grin. She showed me to a seat across the mahogany desk and got straight into business.
I was traveling to New Zealand. En route, I wanted a stop in Mumbai, on India’s west coast, another stop in Singapore, then in Perth, Western Australia, before finally landing in Auckland. On my return leg, I requested for stops on the west coast; Sydney in Australia and Chennai in India. What’s more, I asked if it were possible to use different airlines on each leg. Jane’s grin had turned into a weak yet polite smile. She explained that my request was not entirely practical and that the cost was going to be prohibitive. Or did I have all the money?
Of course, my boundless enthusiasm and ambition did not match my pocket – for a college student, money was as rare as a chicken’s teeth. Jane suggested a more cost-effective itinerary that would nonetheless include highlights such as a visit to the Hindu temples and seventh-century ruins, a trip to New Delhi to see The Taj – an epic in stone – and a tour of the natural hot springs and bubbling mud pools of Rotorua in New Zealand.
I did not see Jane again after college. Nonetheless, vivid memories of this trip, my second international travel as a student, and of my first encounter with this wonderful woman, have been etched on my mind these past twenty-five years.
A few weeks ago, I got home from work a little after dusk and sat at the porch to browse through the day’s newspaper. Flipping through from the back pages, a familiar face and smile caught my eye. Goodness me! Jane. My heart skipped a beat. The photo was in the obituary pages. The notice stated that she died after a long battle with illness.
A medley of thoughts ran through my mind as I stared blankly at the blue star-filled skies. I always thought I’d see Jane again, to say how that first encounter had shaped my years of travel. Now with her gone, that opportunity, sadly, is no longer available to me.
I waited too long.
Copyright ©2014 David Waweru