Saturday, May 27, 2006

Curse of the Hippo Continued

If you've read this blog for a while, you know that I have a minor hippo issue.

Hippos don't like me. I don't know what I did to offend them, and admittedly our yard-hippo never messed with me at night in Uganda, when I lived in Murchison Falls National Park. The last night I was there, the yard-hippo woke me up one last time as he shuffled past, tearing at the grass as he snuffled and followed his usual hippo trail up from the Nile to the front yard.

I'm sure the hippo that had chased me the day before, along the banks of the Nile, was a different hippo. That one didn't like me at all, and he put a curse on me that made all kinds of bad things happen to me for months.

Then, in 2001, I was on a hippo-quest to carry a wooden hippo home from Africa to the creator of Hip Flask: Private Hippopotamus." I acquired said-hippo after a countrywide search throughout Kenya, and then howled with frustration when I couldn't get it out of Ethiopia—even though it wasn't Ethiopian—without a permit from the Department of Antiquities. And then when I finally resigned myself to sending it home via DHL to avoid postal permits, I opened it and it disintegrated, having been smashed in my luggage by other luggage on the back of a truck.

"I would have taken the broken one and glued it back together," said the intended recipient.


So it was with great determination that I left Nairobi's Norfolk Hotel on Saturday. I was hippo-hunting. Failure was not an option.

I walked a block past Parkside, the old Marie-standby hotel. Past Steers and Debonair's, the South African fast food chains. Past a place where I could get a GSM mobile phone for $20. And into a souvenir shop I knew from 2001.

The shop didn't have any hippos. I think I knew that already. The proprietor directed me around the corner where there were some very nice hippos in the $70 range.

"These are lovely hippos," I explained. "But I don't have this much money. Do you know where I can buy a cheap hippo?"

The shopkeeper walked outside with me and pointed across the street.

"Just the other side of that building.

A group of young touts sat outside the cheap souvenir shop. They greeted me. I laughed and greeted them.

"Jambo." I knew one of them would escort me and make money from my purchase. I followed "Frank" into the shop.

Eventually, an acceptable blond wooden hippo the size of my forearm was located. The the drama began.

"That's all right, but not very nice. How much is it?"

"Oh, for you, 3500 shillings."


I laughed again and said I wanted to spend five dollars.

"A lot of work went into this hippo. Look at the carving on the face."

There were a few crude slashes indicating a face. I stared, skeptical.

"I cannot take less than 3500 shillings. You must realize that it is handmade."

"Do you know how much a hippo like this would cost me in the US?"

By now a crowd of men had gathered to watch the negotiations. They murmured amongst themselves when I said "Twenty dollars."

"If it would cost me twenty dollars at home, why would I pay $48 here and then have to carry it?"

Frank did not want to go down in price in front of the others. He tugged at my elbow and steered me away from the crowd.

"Give me 2400," he said. $33.

"No way. That's too much. And I thought you said it was worth more."

"I cannot eat this hippo," he said. "I can eat with your shillings."

He had me. I agreed to pay 1000 shillings and $10—about $23 and far more than I'd meant to pay. Then he talked me out of my coins so he could buy a Coke.

Finally, I asked how much an elephant soapdish was.


"I have only 510 and I want to buy lunch."

"You may have the soapdish for 360 shillings."

"I also want a bottle of water."



A plump woman wrapped my purchases in old newspaper, and Frank sent me on my way. But still, I eyed the hippo warily. What havoc would my old enemy wreak in my luggage this time?

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