About Karen Shaw
Karen Shaw is known to be a hyper-active, hyper-critical creative wanderer. Working as a writer, director and producer, she dropped it all for a year of volunteer work and documentary filmmaking in Nigeria. Her blog captures her tales from around the globe and back again and focuses on that curious, interesting, unexplainable, questionable, magical, remarkable, fantastical, disturbing, enticing, or dubious thing that happens when you travel and you ask yourself... WHY MONKEY?
Latest Posts by Karen Shaw
Fulani people from Niger cross the border into Nigeria during the dry season in search of water for their camels. Conditions must be very harsh in Niger if you are wandering into Nigeria’s deserts.
The holy river Ganges – India
Danfo Driva in Mint Condition – Ibadan, Nigeria.
When I was ten years old my brother was sixteen and learning to drive. I sat in the back of the car and chuckled rather maliciously as he nervously clutched the wheel readying himself for an impossible task. We were smack in the middle of the busiest place on earth – Sheppard’s Plaza – and my brother had to back out of a parking spot into what could only be described as Sabbath Pandemonium.
Friday afternoon at Bathurst and Sheppard was not a place for the faint of heart. Jews converged to fight for their right to that last braided Challah or the last remaining moist, decadent chocolate Bubka. Old, young, religious, secular, black hat, long skirt, jeans, or otherwise, sat in their cars, blocking the flow of traffic, or simply resting their hand on their horn for minutes at a time. Not known for being quiet or for seeing far over the dashboard, the Jews here instead flailed their arms and cursed a few lovely Yiddish words.
My family being a tall Jewish species managed quite nicely in these parts due to our height advantage. Unfortunately, us against them in a race against sunset meant little when it came to time to extricate ourselves from this god-forsaken parking lot. As my brother put the gear in reverse and turned his neck to look back from left to right, my father pretended to remain calm in the passenger seat. His lips were sealed likely due to fear. He too looked left to right, right to left and so on and so forth. This was not, after all, a place for a new driver. The car inched backwards slow and steady and I too began to look cautiously side-to-side, left to right. Cars surrounded our coveted parking spot like ants on sugar.
We were just about to safely reverse when an impatient Bubby jockeyed for position. Overtaking two other minivans vying for our sliver of pavement, she revved her car forward and in those few seconds it was clear a collision was imminent.
But my father is a learned man. He responded swiftly. With his lips still tightly fastened like the seatbelt that covered his chest – he clapped. Ferociously he clapped. He clapped as if he had just watched the greatest symphony performance of ALL TIME. It was like a warning signal between primates. Words couldn’t have worked any better. My brother slammed on the breaks – and Bubby came to a halt mere inches from our car bumper. It was on this day, that I learned a valuable lesson: when in danger… CLAP.
Many years later I was on a safari trip in Nigeria. Back at base camp, we were dogged by the wild and aggressive baboons. These baboons were fearless breaking into buildings and cars to steal any food they could find. I was alone with my gigantic backpack standing near our truck when one of the larger baboons sauntered on on over. With attitude, he looked me up and down before approaching to skillfully grab the handle of my bag and drag it away. My only retrieval technique was to do what I learned when I was ten-years-old. I clapped my hands together as I backed away with a reasonable amount of fear for this type of situation. Of course, not as adept as my father, I added in the eloquent words, NO BABOON, NO BABOON! Surprisingly the baboon stopped and stared at me curiously, perhaps pitifully and voila, backpack saved.
A few more months after that, I was relaxing in bed reading a book in my cheap and basic hotel room in northern India. It was a hot day of course (as most stories go from third world countries) and my balcony door was open letting in a soft breeze and an unwelcome monkey. The aggressive, hungry little shit invited himself in to grab my sealed package of rice cakes. Rarely a treat for humans, who knew monkeys enjoyed styrofoam? I sat up trapped and terrified in bed and what did I do? I clapped. This time fear of death by monkey in a confined space rendered me speechless. But that’s okay, because the clapping worked.
I love when the simple touch of an object can transport you to a different time and place. This morning my cheap black plastic earphones – the kind that always pop out of your ear – provide a portal to the streets of Arusha in Tanzania.
I had been traveling in East Africa for two months at this point and like most of the people here I was about to drop my savings on a safari in the Serengeti. Despite, or because of, the high cost of seeing lions and zebras, I was on a serious budget – the backpacker’s budget.
The travelers I met were also tight with their purse strings, vowing to journey across the continent (for a full year) on a budget of USD $100. With this impossible feat as the goal – every penny counted and negotiations a must.
The tall and lanky German checks into a hostel, but not before he verifies, “Does that come with breakfast?”
The petite American with the squeaky voice and a charming smile will ask her waiter, “Can you throw in a coffee for FREE?”
The seasoned, grubby yet sexy, Australian gets riled up when trying to buy that trinket for Mum, “That’s too much. I’m not paying that! Outrageous!”
Finally, the worldly, intelligent British couple whisper to each other before buying a replacement handset, “I would NEVER pay that much for something made in China. It’s just going to break”.
If you have the time to sit and stare, which one does on holiday, the most entertaining part of the negotiation process is when the customer throws their hands up in the air with disgust over a stated price. ”Forget that, I’m leaving!!” Minutes later the once confident bargain-hunter slinks back in realizing they gave up the best deal they would find.
It’s all quite embarrassing when you are the outside observer. Thankfully, I’m rarely on the outside. You see, when I say they, I mean me. And when I say embarrassing, I mean horrifying.
And so this brings us back to the earphones. My previous earphones were on their last leg. Music only traveled through the wires if I held the end just so. It was time for a replacement. I went into half a dozen stores along the small bustling tourist strip. I would pay $600 for my upcoming trip into the Serengeti, but I refused to pay an extortionist TNZ 8000 shillings (USD $5.00) for a pair of earphones. I could buy snacks for two days at that cost! This was simply not in my budget. In addition – and this was a salient point - these were not some Apple branded earphones. These were shitty knockoffs and they would surely break and then (gasp!) I would have wasted five dollars.
So instead I spent a perfectly lovely afternoon marching up and down the street in a huff flailing my arms and rejecting one perfectly fine pair of earphones after another. By the third store, I realized deep down that I was now being a stubborn child, but I could not stop. My day, my life, became these valuable wires. It did not matter that I could have been relaxing on the rooftop of my hostel staring at the gorgeous snow capped peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro that conveniently filled the frame.
After the sixth or seventh store (I lost track) quoted the same exact price, I think I finally realized that perhaps it was possible that earphones actually did cost TNZ 8,000 shillings. Tired and humiliated from previous tirades, I walked up to a store that sold everything from laundry detergent to telephones. The owner was a sweet and quiet Tanzanian man who wore a warm and welcoming smile. I asked for earphones and mimed the action of putting something in my ear. His English broken, my Swahili non-existent: we were at a loss. Behind him hanging on the wall I saw precisely the same earphones I rejected in every other store that afternoon. I squeezed behind the counter, reached for the object of my desire and placed 8,000 shillings on the counter. No bargaining. No shouting. I was subdued, perhaps even pleasant.
I exited the store and performed the walk of shame back to my hostel. In the corner of the rooftop bar it was finally time to relax with a beer and my book and those pesky made in China earphones.
Today, in a café ten long months later, I recoil at the memory of the Negotiator. My earphones have indeed outlasted all expectations.
Incense in India
My eyes open slowly unable to focus, closing again with the weight of a dumbbell. Seconds, minutes, days are interchangeable in this state. I flow in and out of consciousness. My breathing is long-drawn-out like that of a dying woman. I muster the strength to rise only to vomit. Nothing comes out from my empty stomach.
I lie back down on the bottom bunk bed in a ball and attempt to peer out at my surroundings through the narrow slit of my right eye. Purple walls glare back at me. Lilac, grape, violet, lavender – whatever the shade it’s horrible. I’m suffocating in a 4×4 room of purple. Trapped. It feels as if the walls of Barney’s playroom are closing in on me. Thick floral vinyl curtains are drawn to block any light. The tired nerves in my brain send a message and I gradually roll onto my back. Above my head the wooden slats from the top bunk enrich the confined feel in the room.
Sleep washes over me like an accident. I’m out of body. I hardly speak. I can’t read. When I do open my eyes, my vision is blurry and all I see is that God-awful colour purple. Even in the midst of illness my judgmental taste is in tact. The air is thick in this room. Why can’t someone open the window? Reaching my arm to the floor where a tray of water and aspirin sit, I manage to swallow a pill with as little movement as possible.
The next time I open my eyes a green and yellow parrot is perched on my outstretched arm. I squint and try to focus, blinking and hoping for lucidity. It squawks as if to tell me: yes I’m here.
I wake again, which must mean I slept. It’s neither here nor there. A tiny sweet golden retriever puppy is nestled against my stomach in the nook provided by my curled up legs. In my mind I’m smiling unable to physically pull the corners of my lips upwards. The dog’s deep breaths mirror my own: yes I’m here.
Reality and fantasy morph in this dream-like state: Purple, Parrots, Puppies, Pills. In the suburbs of Nairobi, I am hallucinating the letter P while at the hands of a terrible spell of malaria. The house belongs to Anne, a tall, thin but muscular Kenyan woman with the confidence and will of a thousand white men. While her stature is remarkable it is her rhythmic commanding speech patterns that are most memorable as they lull you into submission.
I arrived to the city two days earlier tired, but still in working human form. Nonetheless my symptoms were obvious to a seasoned Kenyan. Anne forced me to visit the hospital where I was tested and diagnosed with malaria. This would be the third time a vile mosquito tapped my blood and my strength.
Ignoring the doctor’s order to rest I traipsed around Nairobi’s downtown core sitting in cafes and inhaling the cosmopolitan city life. As the sun began to set so did my energy. My vision went first, from clear to fishbowl effect, as I crawled into a fancy hotel and slid down the side of a white marble wall in the toilet stall. I was burning up, nauseous, dizzy and debilitating back pain made it difficult to stand. I called Anne who scolded me like a child: “Go to my home right now! Malaria is no joke. You go rest.”
A taxi drove me the twenty minutes to the house she shared with her brother-in-law and her ten-year-old niece, but not before we pulled over so I could throw up on the side of a congested High street. Looking worse for wear I climbed the stairs to the room that would become my ICU for the next 48 hours. My nurse – an adorably chubby ten-year-old girl with gorgeous skin, braided hair and a shy smile. Her orders were to care for the dying white woman on the bottom bunk.
Like a kaleidoscope the purple room continued to produce patterns only visible to the malaria-ridden patient. A collection of disregarded food gathered on the floor by my bed: a bowl of plain spaghetti, toast with butter, orange juice, a mango, eggs.
Simultaneously awake and unconscious I hear footsteps. I open my eyes expecting another animal, a zebra, an elephant – something more East African this time. I raise my head an inch from the pillow and spot a portable DVD player propped up on a chair in front of me. “What do you want to watch?” the sweet girl asked the corpse. My dehydrated lips were pasted shut, making it difficult to speak, but this nurse deserved an answer. “Your favourite movie.” I responded with the whisper of a defeated woman.
My eyes droop until they closed and I fell back into a trance as Jack Black’s Gulliver’s Travels played in the background. An ironic twist that does not go unnoticed for the traveler strapped to a bunk bed in the grips of a psychedelic malaria-induced trip.
When I traveled off the beaten path in Africa, I craved anonymity. My 5’10 height coupled with a white face and long straight hair, made it impossible to fly under the radar. Men would walk with me, matching my stride, children would chase me down the street tugging at my arms, my dress, my bag. Women begged me to help them, feed them, clothe them or in one strange case: “can you bring a white man back for me from your country?” Oh how I wanted to walk down the street and be invisible.
Now I’m in New York City. I walk the streets alone and undisturbed. Where are the children and mothers and most importantly – the men?! We walk a fine balance in life. To be disturbed or not to be disturbed. To be bothered or not to be bothered. To be part of a group or to be alone.
Right now, I miss my popularity. Tomorrow that might change.