May 29, 2010 GMT
Contemplation In Kericho - Les Has Left Us

At the Kericho Tea Hotel my repaired tent worked fine, and it hardly rained while I was there. But the ground everywhere is so waterlogged and muddy that camping isn't a very comfortable option so I found a very nice small hotel in town where I've been for a few days.

And Kericho is a nice laid-back sort of place. There isn't much traffic on the streets so the characteristic noise that you come to associate with the town is the clatter of dozens of treadle-operated sewing machines scattered all over the pavements of most of the streets.
Tailoring seems to be the main industry after tea growing. And I suppose the two go together in a way - it was probably a colonial tradition to take your afternoon tea properly dressed!

I've spent a couple of days exploring the town and seen only two other white faces, two Japanese who were here for a day, so there are no tourists as far as I can see except me.
Being a non-tourist type place, it's not a very comfortable option to explore the streets with camera in hand, and there aren't many things to photograph anyway. So I just tried a few street scenes:

Almost like Ethiopia - more people than cars on the street.

Small park on the right - Chai Square.

Then I came across this sign hanging on the verandah of a cosmetics shop, which I decided to investigate:


A close-up. And a tailor sitting at his treadle table, one of dozens on the pavements.

The sign led to this, and ............

...... Nelson and his two children coming out of the alleyway.
Well, you never know where these things will lead if you don't look.

Nelson introduced himself and his children with vigorous handshaking all round. He was curious why I was photographing an old sign outside his home. (He lived in the building next to the engineering emporium).
I explained my work back home.
"Let's go inside and meet the engineers," he said. And so we did.
Inside were the two owners of the business, a big lathe tooled up for some job or other, and tons of steel in disarray all over the little workshop. We exchanged the usual greetings, followed by Nelson insisting we go to his home for tea.
And so we did.
During most of the time, Nelson, his wife Patrice and their two children live in a single room in a compound of single rooms behind the machine-shop. Their room contains a large bed, filling half of it, with small bunk above for the children, a bench seat along a remaining side, and a charcoal stove on the floor opposite the bench.

We had tea with ginger from a flask and Nelson and Patrice wanted to know all about my journey. Another cup of tea later a young friend of the family came in wanting to know where I lived.
"Yes, but where in London?"
"In the south."
"Where's that?"
"No, what I mean is, near which football team?"
"Crystal Palace."
"Oh, they've been relegated haven't they. Arsenal is in the north isn't it?"
"That's who I follow."
And so it was English football again, about which I know very little.
Our friend realised that pretty quickly, so asked, "Crystal Palace, is that where the Queen lives?"
I explained about the Crystal Palace and about Buckingham Palace, and he definitely had an interest in London.
"Talking of glass, there's a tall round tower in the middle isn't there, with glass windows all around and the top revolves where you can see all of London. Is that right?"
I replied that I worked in there from time to time as an engineer, which was why I was photographing the sign outside. He looked a bit puzzled at that.

So we had an interesting interlude talking about London, followed by the weather, with Nelson confirming what the hotel manager had said, the rains continue until July.
"We only live here because of my work," he said.
"We have a nice house nearer the Lake (Victoria) which we visit about once a month, but it's too wet to live there and travel here each day for work until July. So we move out there then and stay until the end of the year. This year the rains came early, January, so I don't know when they will end."
Alternative travel plans were forming in my head.
He gave me one more piece of advice for forecasting the weather.
"If it's cold in the morning, until late morning, and then warms up by midday, there'll be lots of rain in the afternoon."

Nelson explained he was a salesman at a nearby insurance brokers and he would show me the town as we walked over there, as he's supposed to be at work. (But this is Africa......)
But first, everyone wanted photographs taken.

Nelson with some local children in the courtyard of the compound.
His own children didn't seem to want to be photographed with their Dad.

Patrice on the left with neighbours.

I had already walked around all of the town but thought it could be interesting to go with Nelson, and being with him would make it easier to photograph street scenes without people getting too curious or concerned.

More street scenes:

We left the tarmac on the way to the office ..........

...... and detoured via the market. This is a corner of the clothes market.

Nelson's office. It's a family business, and more photos were requested.
His sister, seated, is Operations Manager, his brother is Sales Assistant. Their secretary is on the right.

View from the office balcony.

On the way back there were more engineering signs to snap.
Maybe someone at Hillside Road could tell Keith he has a sister business in Kenya - Dalton Electronic.

This is where they train. And "Hotel and Butchery" signs are as common as "Engineering" signs.
A "Hotel" in Kenya is a cafe or cafeteria. So much the better if the Butcher is on site.

So, in Kericho it's easy to find an Engineer. I suppose with all the machinery needed to process the huge tea harvests, (harvesting is a continuous process, leaves being picked whenever it's not raining), and all the pavement sewing machines, you sometimes need to find one in a hurry.

As I'm not travelling much at the moment, this posting doesn't have much to do with the Cape Town journey as you've probably already guessed, so we'll continue with the engineering theme.

Internet services here generally seem to be unreliable, dependant on the weather, going off when the rain is heavy. As a consequence, mobile internet is pretty popular, particularly as mobile phone services cover most of the country using the latest technology, and is much more reliable than the ageing landlines.
So overland travellers in cars or trucks (and sometimes on motorbikes) usually carry their own laptops with a mobile internet USB stick to be able to update their websites using the country's mobile phone networks. And it was an interesting lesson back in Nairobi watching one in action.
A traveller can plug a USB stick, a shade smaller than a box of matches, into his computer, and the screen will show a data speed peaking at 2.2 Mbit/s with only two bars showing on the signal strength gauge. That's 2.2Mbit/s received off-air through an aerial inside the USB stick, encoded and decoded inside the stick and presented to whatever software the traveller is using to browse the web.
Now back in the seventies, when data rates of that sort of speed were first becoming available on telecoms networks, the government was first in the queue demanding those speeds on its own networks. And I worked on the engineering of one such installation. In fact it was the first shipment of 2Mbit/s systems from GEC (who made them at the time) to be used on a private network.
The terminal equipment on those systems comprised two racks, each about six feet tall, the size of two upright fridge-freezers. Something like these:


Closer view to give an idea of the size. There's an ordinary 3-pin socket outlet at the bottom of each rack.

These racks and the panels in them are all painted. If you scraped the paint off, it would never fit inside this:

A mobile internet USB stick.

Yet the modern-day equivalent of all the stuff in those two racks, that I worked on 35 years ago, does fit, with room to spare for the aerial and 4GB of storage card.

I can't begin to calculate how much room would be needed to house that amount of data storage in the seventies, but would guess at something around the size of the old disused Battersea Power Station in London. That springs to mind because certainly, to power such a huge collection of hard disc drives would have taken most of the output of that old electricity generating station. Now it all fits on half a postage stamp.

To put all this into context, I was actually pondering and reminiscing these huge advances in technology yesterday morning at breakfast. The conversation with Nelson's friend about working in the BT Tower had started it, and yesterday's paper carried the news that the mobile phone company Safaricom had published its annual results. It was front page news, as it's the fastest-growing company in Kenya, and one of the richest.
The overland travellers in Nairobi were using Safaricom mobile internet as the picture above shows.

Then, after breakfast, as I contemplated this massive progress in computers and telecoms during my career over the past 35 years, a bolt from the blue hit me for six, fully square-on.
I received two emails from a couple of BT friends, telling me that one of my closest working colleagues, the same age as me and who had retired shortly after I did, had died.

Les joined the 'TV Networks Engineering Division' of the Post Office in 1971, straight from graduating at University, and was teamed with me working on early cable-TV systems for a number of years. And we worked together for a good part of the following thirty years, staying in contact when our careers diverged from time to time.
When we both retired, another member of that old engineering division had set up a Reunion Club of retired Engineers that was particularly successful and well supported. It met twice a year at first but everybody enjoyed the get-togethers so much it grew to four times a year.

Les and I at one of our reunions, in Eastbourne, 18 months ago.
Don't know what was going on here - maybe I was teaching Les to ride a motorbike .......

But that still wasn't enough for Les and I and a few others, living all around the outskirts of London. We got together at various bars, cafes and restaurants almost once a month.
Also, various members of the club took advantage of the privileges and good contacts we had all gained over those thirty years, and managed to arrange, through somewhat unofficial means (it's easier to get forgiveness than permission) to hold at least three of our big reunions in the VIP suites right at the top of the Post Office Tower. (Now the BT Tower). With full VIP catering thrown in! I think Les got to all of those, as I think I did too.
(So the spontaneous conversation with Nelson's friend the day before this bad news arrived turned out to be particularly foreboding).

At the top of the BT Tower for our Christmas 2003 reunion. Les, centre, examines one of Des' collection of 'old boy' ties (I think).

A couple more photos from that reunion to show the view from the top and of the interior.
Some of the readers of this account will know these colleagues.

John Franklin and Don Whitehouse reminisce way up above the streets of London.

View of the bar area. I don't know who everyone is in this picture, but here goes ....
Tony Wright, Dennis Stephens (I think, behind John Fevin), John Fevin, Mick Barnes, Alan Witts, Des Duffy (far right).

For those interested, the strange curved line on the carpet is the join between the fixed floor and the bit that revolves.
If you want to keep your place at the bar, you need to be on the right side of this line, or the bar will disappear around the room. (Whether you're drunk or not).

So this is a very sad time, and contemplation is the thing at the moment. Of my departed colleague, and less so of the weather and travel plans which were the focus of my attention until yesterday morning's news.

A deluge has just started with thunder echoing all over the place. And I read, also in yesterday's paper, that Roberts Camp on Lake Baringo (where the hippos came out of the lake to feed on the grass around our tents) was hit by a storm and flood the day before, requiring some of the tourists there to be rescued. That's not far north of here so I'm beginning to think I'll return south and take the route to Tanzania.
Lake Victoria may have to wait another time.

So I'll offer a little anecdote that Les used to relate on social occasions when we were in polite company.
When he first arrived at our office in Finsbury Circus, fresh out of University, one of the projects underway was to test long lengths of the underground cable that we were installing for one of those cable-TV networks. This was new cable straight off the massive wooden drums, because the stuff that had already been put in the ground wasn't working very well and we suspected a manufacturing fault. A lot of space was needed for this so the work was carried out at a big Post Office vehicle depot in North London.
Les was to accompany me on this project as it was a good introduction to a lot of the division's work, but he was new to London having lived and studied in Glasgow.
However, he was happy to use the Underground to get to the site while I travelled there by motorbike. (So, there is some motorbiking in this posting after all).
I told him clearly the address of the depot, on the Holloway Road, and he had a nice new A-Z map, and one for the London Underground as well.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, much later that day I had done a lot of testing and was a tad worried. Les had not arrived. There were no mobile phones of course, and I knew neither his address nor home phone number. And no, he wasn't at the office.
Knocking-off time came round and I phoned the office once more. Ah.... Les had phoned earlier, he had got hopelessly lost and would be back in the office the next morning. Sigh of relief.

It seemed simple enough - I had given Les an address in the Holloway Road, a main London thoroughfare, which was the start of the London to Edinburgh Great North Road. But, Les was from Glasgow, maybe that was the problem??
No, it was this: he had a strong Glaswegian accent, and I, well, was born and bred in London.
So, when we left the office that morning and went our separate ways, Les expectantly looked up 'Olloway Road' in the index of his new A-Z.
It was nowhere to be seen.
He checked and double checked.
He looked at the Underground maps in Moorgate station.
Asked at the ticket office.
Asked a policeman.
All to no avail. No one understood the Glaswegian version of 'Olloway Road'.
So there we are, two Engineers separated by a common language.
He'll be missed.

He also gave us much entertainment with numerous stories of his trek to Everest Base Camp many years ago. This included graphic tales of a nasty abcess he developed on a somewhat tricky part of his anatomy during the trek. His travelling companion, Colin, from the same TV Networks division, had to attend to it now and again. Les couldn't reach it, you see.

Here's Les and Colin at our Eastbourne reunion, maybe remembering how they sharpened the scalpel before Colin got to work. Alan Gwynn on the left.

(Thanks are due to Pete Chatten for the photos of our reunions.)

Les was a great friend, and everytime I went on one of my journeys he would insist that I keep in touch with him, and send him accounts of my trip by email.
Since I set out in September last year on this one, he has often emailed me with comments about what I've written on this blog, and told me if it's been too long since my last posting.
"What have you been doing? Keep up the blog!" he'd say.
So this posting is for him.


Posted by Ken Thomas at May 29, 2010 06:41 PM GMT

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