Challenging Days at the Office

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Middle: Boda boda bike Behind him: two tuk-tuks

My Kenyan holiday takes on a business-like tone a week after I arrive at the coast. On Monday it’s an early rise, and a smooth drive to Mombasa from Ukunda. We pass countless tuk-tuks precariously plying their trade on three wheels, but there are not so many boda bodas, as the authorities have clamped down on these law-defying entrepreneurs, who clog town traffic. Luckily we have a pass onto the busy Likoni Ferry, so we jump the queues. I would have been late for school, otherwise.

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Jumping the queue at Likoni ferry

The driver drops me at Aga Khan Academy on schedule at 8.30am, the beginning of the school day. Security is tight, and I have to leave my passport at the gate.

Professor Moses Orwe, who teaches chemistry, greets me at the gate. We had “met” on the Oxford/Cambridge Society page on Facebook. He takes me to meet the Headmaster. Then I am escorted to a hall where, the Professor informs me, the whole of Year Ten – sixty students in all – will assemble to hear my talk. I try to hide my dismay, then steel myself to rise to the occasion. I had been expecting to face one classroom of twenty, and I hope my hearing aids won’t let me down when it comes to question time.

The Head of English listens from the back with a couple of interns, as I test the projection of my voice and then I greet the students. I warm to my subject, giving them tips on writing stories, with short extracts from my novels to illustrate the points. Time races by. The students are responsive, and ask intelligent questions. Only one goes to sleep.

Afterwards, the Head of English is enthusiastic. He’s been looking in vain for Kenyan literature which addresses contemporary issues, and declares he wants to order my book for the Year Tens to study next year. I am astounded and delighted. I donate a signed copy of each book to the school librarian. She isn’t authorised to buy them, but the teacher has said he will order, and I feel it best to strike while the iron is hot, and at least make copies available for him to read.

“We look forward to your next visit!” says Professor Orwe, as he escorts me to the gate to collect my passport. I am in euphoria all the way back to Diani; but I know that obstacles will have to be overcome before I can allow myself too much hope.

IMAG0512_2-EFFECTSThe following day I have a lie-in, and find a lovely hot glass of sliced root ginger and crushed quarter lemon waiting outside my room. Then, accompanied by the dogs, I walk to the bottom of the garden and let myself onto the beach for a gentle swim in the calm waters of the Indian Ocean.

An entirely different audience faces me at the local Golf Club at lunch time. Thirty members of the East African Women’s League work casually through the agenda of their Annual General Meeting, and under Any Other Business, five people take turns to stand and promote their causes.

It is the old familiar cry…

“We have too much money in the bank – we must give it away. But it is always the same small hard core few who do the work. More of you must volunteer your time to these causes.”

As the time ticks by, my heart sinks. Nobody will want to listen to my thirty-minute talk, especially as the stewards are starting to lay out the buffet lunch, and enticing aromas drift over the gathering.

Finally, I am called up, and people shift in their chairs.

“Are you sure you don’t want to have lunch first?” I ask.

But the meal isn’t quite ready, so, propped against the bar, I embark on the subject of how charity can – and cannot – work in Africa. The waiters are ready and waiting. I am hungry, too. I hasten to a foreshortened close, and abandoning my books in a higgledy-piggledy spread along the counter, I tuck into a mouth-watering buffet of curries.

It’s great meeting friends, and friends of friends again, and while I chat away, people come up in dribs and drabs bearing books to sign and money to pay. Suddenly, the place has emptied, and all my books are gone.

Afterwards, I ask a friend for feedback on my talk. She suggests I could reduce my emphasis on politics and corruption. “We all know what you mean,” she said. Good point.

We go for some light relief, as I sit watching three ladies have a dancing lesson given by an elegant retired German gentleman. He was a professional dancer and he travels by public transport all the way from Mtwapa on the north coast every week to teach this dwindling group. He’s keen to come, he says, even if only for one person if necessary, to keep the continuity. I tap my feet to the recorded music and smile at the concentration on their faces as they go through the steps. It is a very hot afternoon.

I’ll be glad to return to the heights of Nairobi tomorrow, where it will be cooler.

Nbi flight

Loaded with cash from the sale of my books, I treat my hosts to dinner at the new Piripiri restaurant. Joe chooses the best main dish: prawns piri piri – and Les has a scrumptious crème brulee dessert. My prawns are tasty, and compare satisfactorily with the luscious mouth-dripping delicacies I enjoyed the previous week at the Colobus Shade.

Next week, Nairobi!

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That Couldn’t Possibly Happen in Dulwich, Darling…

I hope you enjoy this lovely chat with Alice Castle, who shares with us her love of her home town, and how she came to commit to her crimes… over to you, Alice.

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I was walking through Dulwich Village one day two years ago, passing the white picket fences, bustling cafes and stunning Georgian houses, when it suddenly struck me that this was the perfect spot for a murder.

Before you call the police, this isn’t a confession to a crime – it’s a declaration of intent to commit a whole series of them. But don’t worry, I’m a writer, not a killer. While I hope you’ll be on the edge of your seat, you’ll definitely live to tell the tale.

In Dulwich, you have the closed circle of suspects, the affluent lifestyle and the beautiful surroundings that made Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead such a promising hotbed of turbulent emotions. A murder in an apparently tranquil setting is a seismic shock, a blow against the natural order of things that cries out to be solved by a gifted amateur sleuth. The twist is that SE21 is also firmly part of contemporary London, and not far from the meaner streets of Catford and Peckham. So as well as the sort of motives Miss Marple would recognise, I’ve introduced modern themes like incest, anorexia, cyberbullying and white collar fraud.

Once I’d had the idea of updating Golden Age crime for a new audience, writing Death in Dulwich and its sequel, The Girl in the Gallery, has been pure pleasure. The books reflect my love for the area, thanks to years living in Dulwich, with my children at the schools which play such a large part in the stories. They’re stuffed with characters that I hope fellow Dulwich devotees will recognise affectionately, and either wish they could share a cappuccino with in Gail’s, or would swerve to avoid outside Tomlinson’s.

My single mum detective, Beth Haldane, is the sort of person you might well see at the gates of a school like, say, the Dulwich Hamlet. But, though at first sight Beth seems a typical Dulwich yummy mummy, it’s not just her precarious financial situation that keeps her aloof from the pack. Her love of puzzles, insatiable curiosity and a fair dash of reckless bravery lead her into situations from which I would certainly hang back. Luckily, she has Metropolitan Police Detective Inspector Harry York dogging her footsteps, keeping her safe and failing to act on the developing spark between them.

imagesMy first book, Death in Dulwich, centres on Beth’s new job as archivist at Wyatt’s, the most prestigious of the Endowment Schools set up by the swashbuckling Sir Thomas Wyatt in the seventeenth century and still going from strength to glossy strength today.

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The second instalment, The Girl in the Gallery, is inspired by the extraordinary Dulwich Picture Gallery, one of my favourite places in the world. As well as the wonderful art collection, I’ve always found the building itself fascinating. It was Sir John Soane’s favourite creation, and it doesn’t take much to see why. The mausoleum at the centre of the Gallery has always exerted a morbid fascination for me, seeming to cry out for a starring role in a whodunit, and I’ve been happy to oblige.

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My third mystery, Calamity in Camberwell, coming out on 13th August this year, features Beth battling against the world again. One of her friends has disappeared. Why does no one else take her absence seriously? It’s down to Beth to sort the situation out. If you want a job done, ask a single mother with a million things on her plate. And Dulwich, as ever, remains at the heart of the book. For her fourth outing, Homicide in Herne Hill (coming out this autumn) Beth will be venturing down Half Moon Lane, but she’ll be slipping back to the village to sneak a coffee with her best friend, yoga teacher Katie, as often as humanly possible.

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It’s been a joy to plot these books and to weave in the local landmarks which I know and love so well. I hope Dulwich residents will forgive the mounting body count, kick off their shoes, get snuggly on their sofas and have fun too, reading about the sort of things that couldn’t possibly happen in Dulwich, darling.

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You can buy Death in Dulwich and The Girl in the Gallery from Village Books, Dulwich Books, Herne Hill Books, Clapham Books and Amazon, via www.MyBook.to/1DeathinDulwich and www.MyBook.to/GirlintheGallery.

And please go and say hello, via Alice’s site www.alicecastleauthor.com,

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/alicecastleauthor/

Twitter https://twitter.com/DDsDiary?lang=en

 

 

 

 

 

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Where Oh Where Are We?

Kenya diaries Ctd..

An entirely different ambience awaits me in the spacious beach home of Les and Joe, only a few minutes’ walk from the package holiday Hotel.

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Their two dogs, black and brown Labradors – whose behaviour reminds me of boisterous children –  understand that they have to behave themselves. They are absolutely devoted to their owners. But it is so hard to be good, and they are full of wiles.

Stanley lies in blissful languor under fondling fingers on the edge of the pool, while Bentley hangs around, forlorn. Not able to bear it any longer, he barks, and rushes with intent down the garden towards the beach. True to instinct, and not wanting to miss anything, Stanley tears himself away and adds to the cacophony. But there is no intruder. Once his rival is committed, Bentley circles quietly back to the pool to claim his turn for loving attention. And the game goes on.

We enjoy a relaxed afternoon, punctuated by barks. Joe is sprawled on the sofa, either engrossed in his laptop, or laid out – sleeping. Les is a good companion, but fearful of Joe’s impending retirement and their move to the UK. What will she do with the dogs?

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Sunday, we are up early to take part in a local fundraiser, “Wild Wheels 2018”. About 30 vehicles scramble through the countryside in search of clues embedded in detailed route maps.

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Our team, the Wasi wasi wapis (where, oh where are we?), is serious about the tasks. We solve anagrams, collect information, and fill two enormous bags with non-biodegradable rubbish for weighing at the end. One eager competitor nearly comes to grief while scavenging in a particularly odorous dump near a local dive. His stomach can’t take it, and he retires to the car. We decide to call it a day.

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It’s a well organised event, which makes me suspect that expertise drawn from the old East African Safari Rally is involved.  Competitors are divided into four groups going different ways, so we don’t pass many cars, and the villagers aren’t too disturbed. They’re used to these crazy wazungus (white people), anyway, as a  number of them are employed at a nearby mine, which is popular with the community. We stop opposite one fellow competitor to exchange information on a narrow rutted road. An angry horn sounds, and an irate gentleman in a smart saloon car curses us. We should go back where we belong! Joe winds down the window of our air-conditioned 4WD and speaks to him in safi (pure)Swahili, suggesting that Kenya is also his country, and perhaps a little give and take would be in order. The gentleman engages gear and drives off in a more subdued manner.

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Four hours after the start we check in, and give in our two overflowing rubbish bags for weighing. We’ve won! No other teams have shown such dedication and enthusiasm. We retire to the derelict Alliance Beach Hotel, and the efficiency ends as we hang around the make-shift bar, waiting… and waiting… for lunch…

See you next week!

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A Story to Make you Smile

Ninja School Mum

I feel very privileged to welcome the famous author/inventor Lizzie Chantree as the inaugural contributor to my new blog series on settings for books. We are in for a treat…

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Thank you for inviting me onto your blog today Jane to talk about the setting and theme of my latest book, Ninja School Mum.

Cloud Climb. Ninja School Mum

Zack’s estate and tree climbing business. Cloud Climb

Ninja School Mum, is set amongst the English countryside, on the edge of a bustling village. The mainGirl in profile. character, Skye, has past and needs to find a new place to stay for herself and her son Leo. Skye rents out a small cottage which backs on to a huge country estate, owned by single parent Zack. Zack has been left the building and grounds by his eccentric grandad and decides that the failing tree climbing business near the entrance to the estate, could be a good way to help his daughter make new friends and for him to have a new challenge, after his wife left him holding the baby.

The whole book is based around a pretty English village, lots of trees and nature and a primary school playground in the village. Skye finds it as hard to hide her true self and fit in with other parents at the school, as her son Leo does with the children there. She uses her little cottage as a refuge to hide from the other parents, but when another child begins to taunt her son, she decides to use the cottage garden to show him how to protect himself. She meets another school mum, Thea, who joins her at the cottage and watches in awe as Skye teaches the children self-defence. Thea begins to wonder who the other woman really is.

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This is a painting a reader sent me on Facebook. It’s her interpretation of the view from Skye’s cottage. I was so thrilled to receive it.

Other parents hear of Skye’s new after-school activities and begin to turn up at the cottage with food offerings and children in tow. Soon word spreads and the mother of the naughty child demands an explanation as to why her son has been left out. This is not the only problem in Skye’s life, as she thinks she is being watched and that her past life is catching up on her.

What follows is full of playground gossip, blossoming friendship and sizzling romance as the main characters lives are entwined.

I chose the setting for this book as I love to travel around the UK and there are so many beautiful buildings and gardens to explore, especially some of those run by the National Trust. I often sit in a tearoom in a garden (with a slice of cake) and think about all of the lives and stories that have surrounded the architecture and nature over the years. I always sit by a window if I can and the view inspires me to write modern romance stories of strong, but imperfect women and dashing, but sometimes flawed men. My books always ebb and flow around an entrepreneurial business or idea as I mentor creative businesses in my spare time. Both career paths give me a chance to talk to other creative people and to travel and be inspired by all that is around me. I hope that my books help people to sit for a while and picture themselves somewhere beautiful and for the stories to make them smile.

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Thankyou, Lizzie, for this little gem. I feel we have much in common, as I too am a business mentor and I can dream for hours in the countryside while conjuring up stories.

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Lizzie Chantree is an award-winning inventor and author, who started her own business at the age of 18 and became one of Fair Play London and The Patent Office’s British Female Inventors of the Year in 2000. She discovered her love of writing fiction when her children were little and now runs networking hours on social media, where creative businesses, writers, photographers and designers can offer advice and support to each other. She lives with her family on the coast in Essex.

You can buy Lizzie’s book by clicking the picture below:

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 Social media links:

Author page: viewAuthor.at/LizzieChantree

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Lizzie_Chantree

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lizzie.chantree.3

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lizzie_chantree/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/LizzieChantree/pins/

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A Leisurely Cycle of Sleeping and Eating

Kenya Diary – March 2018.

The people in Nairobi are subdued, not the optimistic vibrant feel of my last visit in 2015. The country is divided into two camps, and neither side will give way. Although Uhuru Kenyatta has the constitution on his side, Raila Odinga reportedly has the greater support. But nobody wants to spark violence like in 2008. An uneasy situation, and the country is holding its breath.

We woke up earlyish to catch the plane from Wilson airport to Ukunda. A one hour flight to the humidity of the coast. A lovely day, not too hot. It had rained before we arrived, clearing the air. Rooms at the Baobab Hotel are pleasantly air-conditioned, looking onto a peaceful aspect.

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We explored the place. Had a “light” buffet lunch at one of the restaurants, then relaxed on sunbeds overlooking the sea. The tide came in and I wallowed, buffeted by the waves for the best part of an hour. A few people wandered on the beach. By the next night I felt quite stiff and a bit sore with the “exercise”.

Supper was an amazing selection of choices in the main restaurant. We both had two helpings. I chose fish at first, and then went for goat and chicken roasts. Tasty sauces, ugali and spinach. Everything tastes so much better in Kenya. We sat next to a British couple with their two children and talked about Kenyan coffee.

The days run into each other. A leisurely cycle of sleeping and eating and soaking up the dappled sun. You don’t feel you’re one of hundreds here – there is plenty of space and facilities for all. Many choices of restaurants and swimming pools (I prefer the sea), and nooks and crannies for private space on sunbeds. The ethos is one of quiet gentility among the multi-national guests, mainly from Europe, with a smattering of locals here for half term. Plenty of smiling happy staff ready to greet you if you wish. Lavish buffets – few queues – meals spaced out. I had a delicious omelette for breakfast, with trimmings to order.

 

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At the Colobus Shade

 

We walked southwards for fifteen minutes along the beach to the “Colobus Shade” for a fresh-caught fish lunch. Ranked 10 on Diani Beach by Trip Adviser, their char-grilled prawns are to die for! Thin fillets of red snapper (my son ate all the kalamari). No ambience. Just a thatched shack fifty yards inland, looking into the rear of a busy beach restaurant. But I bet their meal wasn’t as good as ours. On our way back past some laundry drying on the dusty grass, a fisherman was displaying his catch. Luscious slimy octopus, and a row of tiny fish. A red snapper, which would have been returned to the ocean fifty years ago. No wonder my fillets were so meagre. I asked him if he had parrot fish. “Yes” – he gestured at the row of carcasses on the concrete step. But they were too small for me even to identify the distinctive mouth of this delicacy.

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We wandered back to the Baobab complex of three separate hotels, and climbed the steps to flop on sunbeds beside an infinity pool, where I cooled off after the midday walk. A continuous breeze lessened the ferocity of the sun, but we were careful to use lavish dollops of sunscreen.

After dinner, we watched the dancers and singers perform in an elaborate amphitheatre. Energetic, lively themed scenes following Kenya’s history down the years; exotic costumes. Singing old and new African songs.

Our ground floor room is pleasantly air-conditioned, and I sleep well…

 …Where has the time gone?

We have an early morning dip in the gentle, cool sea and a stroll along the sand northwards, before another omelette breakfast. Then I experience my first ever full body massage at the spa. Lovely relaxation, although the young beautician finds several sore spots on my legs and shoulders. I feel quite wobbly afterwards but manage to do justice to the buffet lunch.

I learn from a friend later that I should have had a glass of water after my massage to get rid of the toxins.

Next stop, the lovely home of my friends, only a couple of houses down the beach…

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A Series of Treats and Some Tips

Next Tuesday my regular weekly blog for guest authors will revive!

The theme will be settings. And I have  some well known authors in mind to share a few tips on the techniques of using settings to enhance their stories.

Meanwhile, I cannot resist the opportunity to remind you that many reviewers of my Kenya novels, Breath of Africa and Grass Shoots, have referred to the stunning settings as characters in themselves.

Here are a couple of extracts, which I often read when giving talks. (details of my talks can be found HERE)

Breath of Africa

Breath of Africa:

Every other weekend Brian drove the hundred miles from Nairobi, and they explored the countryside together. Their favourite place was the rim of Mt. Menengai, the volcano overlooking Nakuru town; smaller than Ngorongoro, it had its own dramatic character. They stood on the jutting promontory and looked over the dense scrub in the crater depths, interspersed with black mounds of glistening lava, a dark, forbidding country.

“It’s the third largest crater in the world,” Brian told Caroline. “I read that somewhere.”

Caroline gazed beyond, at the vastness of Africa, which rolled through patterned farmlands, across hills and plains into the hazy distance. As evening fell, grey clouds crept along the crater depths and swirled up the cliffs, snatching at them with wispy fingers, as the wind caught and tossed the vapours into nothingness among the trees.

They walked towards the car, but a sudden movement in the long grass near the forest distracted them. Brian turned off the track, parting the stalks in front of him.

“Careful of snakes!” Caroline warned.

She followed, treading in his footsteps. As they approached the thrashing, it increased, and she saw the soft brown hide of a female impala, its eyes wide with fright. One leg was caught in a loop of wire.

“It’s a trap, but the wire hasn’t tightened too much. I’ll see if I can free her.”

Brian caught hold of the leg and the animal stilled. She seemed to know they were trying to help. He struggled with the wire, and eased it over the hoof. He let go. The doe stood there for a second, then moved her leg and took a small step. She bounded away and the grass closed behind her. It was as if it had never happened.

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Grass Shoots:

Emily went out by herself to savour the magic of their special place. She’d followed Paul often enough along the game path from the dry river bed bordering their plot. Reaching a bend, she looked to her left.

There was a loud snort of concern. A wildebeest stood poised for flight. They eyed each other, frozen with tension. He was big; he tossed his horns and stamped a foot, then snorted again. Emily stood her ground and so did he. Only a few yards separated them, and a feeling of unease spread through her. Paul was out of reach in the house on the other side of the dam. If she retreated, the animal would chase her down. She held her breath, and eyed the surrounding long grass, looking for an escape route – and the wildebeest lowered its head. To her great relief, it continued sedately on its way across her path. She had broken the confrontation, and it no longer saw her as a threat.

For one long moment she had been a mere creature out there facing danger, tasting the fear experienced by wild animals every moment of their vulnerable lives. It was a humbling experience.

I hope you will enjoy this series.

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BLESSED WARMTH

I’m sorry for abandoning you over the past several months, but I have made a resolution to resume my Friday blogs. And what better time to start, than after a long-awaited visit to my homeland, which changes every time I go there.

My first day in Kenya for three years, after a smooth night flight, starts with a half-hour taxi ride from the airport over the new bypass alongside the Nairobi Park boundary. Last time, the journey to my son’s home near Wilson Airport had taken 90 minutes. I note that a sliver of land has been cut away from the Park to allow for the new road, but I’m already revelling in the warmth and the sunshine, letting my hair drift outside the car window  as we bimble along at speed.

I am introduced to Sassie, a beautiful golden retriever, who has his heart on his sleeve, “talks” all the time, and tries so very hard to be good.

After breakfast, we tour the Langata suburb of Nairobi. Smooth, newly-widened paved roads.  Cars moving steadily forward. The familiar Hardy Dukas of old is now replaced by an enormous shopping complex. The Police Station is still there, sporting gleaming painted walls. The traffic chaos seems a little more orderly than I remember, but I am advised not to drive in Nairobi. “It’s much worse than before, Mum”.

We visit Kazuri Beads. Kazuri means “small and beautiful” in Swahili. Lady Susan Wood founded the enterprise in 1975 as a tiny workshop experimenting in making hand made beads.

Joseph gives us a private tour of the factory, from the baking of the clay – originally imported from the UK, but now sourced locally – through to moulding, painting, glazing and firing.

 Ladies (and even one or two men) working at benches. People in colourful clothes, with imaginative hairstyles happy to pose for photos.

One lady is “attached” to a disabled woman, they share earphones as they work to music. I click away with my camera in the joyful atmosphere. Then I enter the shop and buy three necklaces.

We go to Karen. New modern shopping centres and housing estates have popped up all over the place. The road is lined with “jua kali” (hot sun) fruit and flower stalls and nurseries.

We pass an impressively tidy row of matatus, all lined up. An enormous new mall rises just past the Karen Roundabout, but it is practically empty and feels so quiet after the bustle outside.



 

 

 

The following day we catch the plane for a one-hour flight to Ukunda and the humidity of the coast. A lovely day, not too hot. It had rained before we arrived, clearing the air…

See you next Friday!

 

 

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