The lake was not blood-red as we had expected but sugar mouse pink mixed with swirls of sugar mouse white. Close up it smelt acrid like sewage and when you trod on the edge imagining a surface hard as ice, your feet slipped into sludge. On one side of the causeway was a many-turreted metal factory used to extract and refine the sodium carbonate, which belched forth smoke. On the other side, within rectangular, constructed 'fields', gangs of men wearing identical blue uniforms and rubber boots raked the by-product, salt, in formation into criss-cross patterns, as though they were creating a collective work of art. Flamingos stalked the lake's fringes. They looked elegant in their flashy pink suits, but they ran shakily and squawked, building up momentum to get into the air, if you went within a few hundred yards of them.
Before we had even reached the town gates I felt claustrophobic, as though I were entering an oven. A sign declared, 'No walking or driving on the lake surface. The Soda Company accepts no responsibility for loss or accident and no emergency services are available'. Fortunately we hadn't come by car. We signed into the town at the gatehouse and walked uphill above the lake, panting like dogs as we took a short tour.
The place was a time warp, a relic of colonialism and the industrial revolution. Muslims, Maasai tribespeople and Christians co-existed in harmony, all of them working for the excellent wages, the reward for living in an inferno. The company provided its employees with free accommodation and utilities. There was also a cinema and swimming pool, both of which were barred to visitors. At 7am and 7pm the factory siren wailed and men streamed outside, pulled to or from their particular shifts. The factory functioned 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. There was another sign declaring that fact proudly and plainly. You wondered if men regularly dropped like flies on the job, to be replaced by other black men in blue uniforms and strong boots, who were similarly dispensable.
Everybody turned to stare at the sunburned people who were obviously not bosses. The bosses lived in air-conditioned houses at the ends of asphaltic drives in a separate part of town. We stood out a white mile being down-at-heel, hot and wearing sunglasses and caps. We walked past the baker's: a man in overalls was pulling bread out of a boiling oven with a spade. Next door a Maasai woman pegged out an animal skin to dry, hammering wooden splints into the ground. Goats and cattle roamed inside the fenced-off market which sold household provisions but little food apart from stale, flaky bread and shrivelled vegetables.
We realised we had arrived on a holiday - the last day of Ramadan also coincided with Ash Wednesday - which explained why most people were simply sitting outside in groups, waiting for nothing in particular to happen. We walked past the curious stares searching for a bar that sold chai or sodas. Unlike my friend, I seemed incapable of sweating and he was worried about my beetroot complexion. His blue shirt was soaked whereas I felt lethargic and had stopped talking. He decided to get me into the shade as fast as possible.
The bar was dark and held just a couple of tables. There were the usual signs on the walls warning you not to ask for credit: 'If you don't pay today you will pay for it tomorrow.' We bought cokes for the two young guys who had given us directions and ordered bean and vegetable stew with bread and tea. We had been eating cold baked beans out of tins, bananas and peanuts for the past couple of days and were starving, having started our journey at dawn. Waiting for the food to arrive, I smeared my face and arms with sun lotion, which dripped off immediately. Our new friends looked pitifully at me, and told us it had rained yesterday, that the air temperature was pleasantly warm today. My friend agreed. He wanted to go exploring, to climb the nearby mountain that was meant to be the hottest, most thorny, most unpleasant mountain in the whole country. I wanted just to be able to breathe without difficulty and to stay indoors.
Fidelis was an unemployed farmer scavenging for any kind of work in this lucrative town and his friend, John, worked in the Catholic mission. Fidelis had a wife and child in a village many miles away whom he visited every few weeks, sometimes taking them money. He was living temporarily in the company town with his brother and his family. They took us to sit beneath a pavilion next to the open-air swimming pool until it was time for us to leave. While the children and mothers splashed we lay face-up on the concrete tiles sucking boiled sweets, having no money left to buy drinks. Hanging from rafters in the thatched roof, bats the size of giant hands swung gently in their sleep.
We walked back up the hill in mid-afternoon to hitch a lift to the hut in the country where we were staying. There were only two buses a day and helpfully these both left before 7am. Fidelis and John waited with us. We sat by the roadside near the bus stop watching the clouds moving and reflecting in the reddening rows of the semi-solid lake. A huge goods train arrived and stopped on the other side. Its succession of carriages formed a semi-circle along the horizon in front of the mountains. Below the road tribespeople walked home along the causeway, shovels and knapsacks slung over their backs.
A group of tribesmen, women and children arrived to wait with us. We leapt up to signal at passing cars whilst they leaned patiently against the bus stop, but the traffic was bound for another part of town. A couple of cars and trucks left the gates but they were company vehicles driven by white men, who didn't want the inconvenience of taking the Maasai. We could have stood at a remove and had a greater chance of getting a lift with one of these managers, but this would have been unfair.
We were waiting anxiously for the return of the park rangers' truck which had dropped us off early in the morning. We had sat in the back which was crowded with women with babies and old men, next to a huge, empty cage, our hair and voices tangled by the wind. The rangers were on their way to a nearby village to collect a leopard they had trapped that had been attacking the villagers' goats. Taking aboard hitchers earned them extra cash, but the canny tribeswomen pulled out large notes from the purses strung inside their dresses, which the rangers couldn't change. They disembarked having journeyed for free. To make up for the shortfall, we gladly paid more than the going rate.
The sun set early. Venus appeared directly above the new moon, marking the end of Ramadan. I thought it looked like a bright eye hovering above a smile. Fidelis had offered to let us stay and we trudged wearily back with him through the heat which hadn't dissipated in spite of the darkness. A little boy ran alongside me and tugged on my shirt, asking me the time. It was the one question I understood and I pointed proudly to my wrist, teaching him the word 'watch' in English:
"Give it me", he demanded. I was too taken aback to reply and edged forward to my companions who were disappearing down an embankment.
The workers and their families lived in blocks of adjoining flats. We followed Fidelis up three or four flights, avoiding the women and children who were sitting and talking. Some of the children were playing with oranges, which bounced back down the stairwell. His brother's flat was filled with people and the door left ajar. He introduced us to his brother, Chrispin, and Chrispin's wife, Assumpta, and to the pastor who was in the middle of saying prayers. He added a prayer for the safety of two young travellers before leaving with the friends and neighbours.
Their home consisted of a kitchen with a shower in the corner, a living room with a curtained-off bed which Fidelis used and a family room, where Chrispin and his wife and their two small children slept. We were immensely hot, tired and dirty and wanted just to sleep, but sat on the sofa whilst the family busied itself, excited to have visitors from Europe. The children looked scared and hid behind their father until, realising we were unthreatening, darted towards us, punched us and ran away giggling. They were admonished by their parents but grew in confidence and soon the children from next door were crowing around the doorway, mouths agape. They practised counting to ten in English before scurrying away. A sullen woman sat in the corner suckling her baby, her dress open on one side down to her waist. We didn't know who she was and no-one addressed her all evening.
The sitting room was small and cluttered. It looked lived in but unloved. In one corner a table was piled high with ripe bananas, as small and pudgy as a plump child's fingers. We were offered bananas and hot chocolate. Fidelis put equal amounts of powder and sugar into our glasses and filled them with hot water. Disgustingly sticky and sweet we drank the chocolate politely, but as soon as we had managed half, he replenished the glasses with more powder, sugar and a little water. Still, it helped us to perspire. There was a radio and TV, both of which were left on for background noise, perhaps to soften the sound of the children's squeals. The only decorations were a motley collection of faded wedding snaps and a sign: 'STRUGGLING IS THE REAL MEANING OF LIFE. VICTORY AND DEFEAT ARE IN THE HANDS OF GOD, SO ONE MUST ENJOY IN STRUGGLING'. It was only after I had read this that I noticed a little shrine on a chest of drawers that held a cross. Above it hung a garish picture of the crucifixion.
We sat with the children on our laps, and feeling sick from the hot chocolate, told Chrispin where we came from and about our travels. I talked little; as a woman I was not expected to be the main spokesperson. When I felt tired or unwell, this gave me an excuse to remain quiet. Assumpta was ensconced in the kitchen for hours. The smell of the cooking fat used to make greasy chapatis filled our nostrils. It was growing late and we were beyond eating.
At one point Assumpta ventured into the living room and beckoned for me to come outside with her. She was very short and fat with an enormous bosom that rested on her waist. Her apron was tied just below, but the ribbon seemed to have been swallowed by flesh. She waddled rather than walked, but had an endearing grin. I felt flattered by her gesture and imagined her to be shy, to want to speak to me alone, woman to woman. Maybe she'd never had a white woman in her house before and just wanted to touch my sun-blanched hair or face.
I leant against a railing in the main passageway. She told me she was embarrassed to do this in front of the others and pulled a fist-sized object from her apron pocket, holding it up to my gaze. I looked but was mystified. It was a piece of rock.
"What is it", I asked softly, trying not to offend.
"Quartz", she said. "We want to know if you can sell it for us."
It was my turn to feel embarrassed. The family had been enormously hospitable. Without their generosity we might have had to sleep rough and we wouldn't have had the privilege of seeing inside someone's home, but I knew nothing about minerals.
"I'm not sure", I replied. "I'd better ask my friend."
We went inside and Assumpta disappeared into the family's quarters, reappearing with a parcel wrapped in newspaper. She carefully laid it on the table away from the drinks and peeled off the layers of paper. Her belief in the object's value seemed to invest it with magical powers and for a moment I saw her pulling off the petals of a gorgeous flower to reveal at its heart a jewel that would make us gasp in amazement. From the faded leaves of newsprint she withdrew instead a much larger dirty piece of rock.
"Quartz", she said again. "We want to know if you can sell it."
I glanced helplessly at my friend, hoping he would come up with a plausible explanation about why we couldn't be sure of helping.
"I know a South African diamond dealer in Nairobi", he ventured. "Perhaps he'll be able to tell what it's worth. I'm not sure we can do anything, but we promise to try."
Assumpta re-wrapped her rock and carried it into its secret bed in the other room. Both she and her husband continued to look at us imploringly.
The rock seemed to symbolise hope for them. It was probably best they didn't find out it was worthless. Still, as simple but devout Christians, they appeared uncomfortable about placing so much emphasis on something material. Perhaps their nervousness came from wanting to keep their treasure hidden from their neighbours in this town where all employees lived in identical circumstances, where everyone had enough, but no-one really had more than enough. The obvious explanation was that in spite of this they were pragmatic and wanted to do the best they could for their children.
By the time the evening meal arrived it was gone 11 pm. Fidelis had given us clean glasses and filled them two-thirds with cordial, topping them up with water. He followed the same replenishing process as with the hot chocolate. When he offered us a warm beer to share, I was only too happy to accept. After saying grace in English, we ate tough meat stew, probably goat, with potatoes, spinach and chapatis, followed by more bananas. We were given larger portions than the rest of the family, but I couldn't cope with the gastronomic onslaught. We escaped outside with Fidelis for a smoke. The heat was intense though bearable and cicadas scratched loudly, making a blanket hum. He told us he was trying to save money so he could buy irrigation pipes to farm, but was not having much luck. Like most people in his country he did whatever work he could get.
Before going to bed we knelt by candlelight in front of the family's shrine whilst they said the Lord's prayer in Swahili. We tried to look suitably humble, clasped our hands together and looked to the floor. The family then took it in turns to have a cold shower. We followed suit and, barely daring to move in Fidelis' small bed because of the humidity, fell asleep to the sound of a braying donkey.
We were awoken by a cockerel crowing in the still star-filled sky. Reeling from the effort of eating omelettes, chapatis, more drinking chocolate and bananas before first light, we walked with Chrispin, now in uniform, and Fidelis to the bus stop. They had weighed us down with further bags of bananas which we would be grateful for in the wilderness where there were no shops for several miles.
It was 7am and the factory siren was wailing. A hundred men in dark blue boiler suits were walking, as though mesmerised, towards the noise. I imagined a 50s B movie entitled perhaps, The Soda Monster. In my film a quota of men would be pulled each sunrise towards the monster's red jaws for sacrifice. It was certainly true that were you to fall in the lake, you would be burnt alive, but at 7pm these same men re-emerged from the factory, roused by a second siren, and returned to their families.
As a gesture of gratitude, we offered Chrispin some foreign currency which he refused. We managed to give it surreptitiously to Fidelis, who accepted without hesitation. Chrispin told us that next time we should bring some presents for his children instead. As we got on the bus in the soft morning light, when the view was still pastel-clear, not yet bleached of colour by direct sunlight, Chrispin shook our hands. He reiterated:
"Don't forget about the rock", turned on his heel and walked down the rise to the glistening metal god on the edge of the lake.