The Curious Wanderer: John Fox

Our Curious Wanderer this month is John Fox. John Fox is the Managing Director of Intermedia Development Consultants (iDC).  His  job has taken him all over Africa, also to the countries of South and South East Asia. John is also a journalist, and has written the Going Places column in the Sunday Nation for 26 years.

John Fox 1

What is your favourite destination to visit?

If we are thinking about Kenya and just relaxing, what I’m feeling now, I would love to go to Mombasa. I mean I’m fed up with the weather here and we have been working hard. I wouldn’t like to work there but I just feel like a few days off at the coast. And that’s a common answer isn’t it?

In the world, what is your favourite destination?

If I was told now to go on holiday, I’d go back to Vietnam. I’ve had a few consultancy assignments there and it’s an intriguing and very relaxing country. You know it’s very funny, when I was going to Vietnam my taxi driver, she said, “Where are you to going this time?” I said Vietnam. And she said “Oh you are going to the war!” But when I was there I read an article in their English language newspaper that said, Vietnam is the safest country in the world for tourists, so it was a nice contradictory thing. I’ve always been working whenever I’m in Vietnam so it would be nice to go there on a relaxed holiday. In Hanoi particularly, you know Vietnam has the North and South, culturally they are very different. Hanoi is in the North.

What’s so special about Hanoi?

At the centre of the city there’s a lake and there are cafes at the lake shore which are very nice. I remember sitting at one of those cafes with a jazz band playing. There’s a lot of French influence in the architecture, because they were part of the French colony for quite some time. The Vietnamese are very interesting people, low key but determined people. There’s a museum of modern history in Hanoi and they have a map of the world, a big map of the war, with these huge arrows which shows that they defeated the Chinese, they defeated the French and then they defeated the Americans. They are very proud of this.

What places are on your bucket list?

China, I haven’t been to China. You know someone said to me that I must be a very rich guy going to all these places. I said well I’m not, it’s just where my work takes me. Most of my travelling, particularly in South Asia and also Africa, has been through the consultancy work. I’ve never had a consultancy assignment in China. Although I have a niece who does business with China, she imports things and she visits quite often and says yeah you must come with me. So one day I will go along with her.

What draws you to China?

I don’t know. I mean, until you visit a place, you imagine its uniformity, and when you go, like when you go to the States, culturally places are very different. I come from North of England and my father would turn in his grave if he knew that I support Arsenal football club, because if you are from the north, you are supposed to support football teams from the south. People talk differently so until you go to that place, you don’t know what they are talking about. This is similar to Vietnam, I mean Ho Chi Minh City to the South is so different, much faster, and more entrepreneurial. I guess it’s more like Kenya, you know between Nairobi and the Coast.

Any other place you want to visit?

Every time I’ve been to Thailand as part of a work assignment, it’s been a very liberating sort of culture.  It’s a fun place, I guess to some extent, and it must be related to some extent to the religion, compared with or sort of the austerity of a Muslim country, where we do a lot of work.

What factors do you consider when choosing where to go on holiday?

I’m amazed at people in the UK. I mean when the sun comes out people go crazy because it will only last a few days and they will go to the coast, lie on the sand, maybe read a book while lying on the sand trying to get brown. That kind of lazy beach holiday, I don’t like. For me there has to be other things to do, other places to see, other people to meet and talk with. For instance, at the coast I like the North Coast rather than the South Coast because I think it’s more mixed because people work there, while in the south there’s just mainly tourists. A place should also have a history about it.

What are your travel essentials?

Well it depends where I’m going, I must carry my laptop, a tape recorder, a camera, and an iPad in place of a book.

How do you save for your holidays?

I don’t think I’ve ever consciously saved for a holiday. I guess I must be lucky because I’ve been able to afford holidays, although I’ve never gone for the really lavish holidays like a world cruise.  I’m not saying that I’m not conscious. For instance, Peace Hotel in Mogadishu where I was staying, they offered a trip of the city, and it costs $1200; I said no thank you that’s too much. But seriously, I’ve never quite saved for holidays.

Even for the family, we don’t have expensive holidays either. We have had camping trips. I suppose we are pretty careful, if we are the four of us, we wouldn’t stay in the high end safari camps. I’ll tell you a funny story, *Cottar’s camp is no longer Cottar’s Camp, but when Cottar’s Camp was at the edge of the Mara, the old Cottar’s Camp, I was with my daughter and we were going camping in the Mara and we called in at Cottar’s Camp just before we entered the game park. It’s a lovely spot, very simple and I knew the manager. My daughter said this is a lovely place to stay and I asked the manager what’s the chance of us putting up our tent here and staying? And he said, Oh John, I’d love to say yes, but you see through those trees there, we put up some tents for some Americans and they are paying a whole lot more than in the bandas so if I let you put up your tent they are going to wonder why. So yeah I guess we are a bit careful when we go on holiday because we have to multiply by four. And if we go to the coast for instance, we rent a place; we also go to the game parks quite a bit.

Horror stories from your travels?

I’ve never had quite a disastrous one but oh yeah there’s one, it may be a silly one. I used to smoke and I made the mistake of giving up smoking year after year when I was going on holiday which was an insensitive thing to do because it wasn’t really a good thing for the family. Also it took me a long time to realize that smoking was attached to work, I thought I would only be effective at work if I smoked.

So I had some chewing gum that pumps nicotine into you (I bought some of that when we were driving off to France). I didn’t read the instructions properly, and so I said I’ll start taking the chewing gum when I need it. We drove, crossed the channel on a ferry, drove all the way to the South of France and my wife rejected two camp sites. I was tired and irritable and I said oh well I better have some of this stuff. I took the gum and started chewing. What the instructions said is take it straight away and don’t chew fast because nicotine gets into your system very quickly. We were driving along this road, I was chewing this stuff and I almost fainted. There was a car coming, and I remember pulling off the road very fast and saying something like it’s ok, it’s ok and then slumping onto the wheel.

Where are you planning to go for your next mini holiday?

Apart from nipping off to the coast, in September I have a meeting in Denmark, Copenhagen which is the loveliest city. I’m also going to take time off to divert to the UK, visit relatives and friends. I haven’t been to the UK for like three years.

If you had to choose a country from your travels in which to settle down, which would it be?

Well it could not be in my home country, I could not survive in Britain now. Not only because of the cold but I mean the ethos of the place is so reserved. Nairobi is so cosmopolitan, never boring, such an exciting place, I’ve been here since 1986 so it would be Nairobi. If I was kicked out I would just go to Kampala.

What do you like about Nairobi?

It is a cosmopolitan place, that’s very interesting and the mix of people you get here, the variety of things to do, I mean there can’t be any city in the world that has all the urban pleasures, the shops, the nightclubs whatever, yet 5 km away you are in Nairobi game park, you’re in savannah land. I don’t know anywhere else in the world that has that contrast which is so close and you are within reach, in an hours flight you’re on a beach or climbing Mt. Kenya. It’s an amazing kaleidoscopic landscape here which is unrivalled. Yes, it’s the cosmopolitan nature. I mean I came here for the first time in 1967 and there were still a lot of the colonial trappings. I know Nairobi has improved for the better apart from the traffic jams. Look at Lavington, when we came to Lavington in 86, there were no restaurants, Kengeles was the first in 98. Now I can’t count them so that makes it a more exciting place to live now though it was a very sleepy place when we moved here.

Do you prefer to travel alone or in a group and why?

I’d rather travel with family or friends. I used to teach in university when I was in the UK and for two years we brought study tours to Kenya and Tanzania and there was always friction. I think the chances of that kind of large group really gelling are pretty remote. I remember there was one woman, an English lady who we took to Tanzania and she kept asking, please Mr. Fox, can we get brown bread? I said we’ll be lucky to get bread let alone brown bread because the economy of Tanzania was completely smashed. So while I don’t like travelling on my own, it would have to be with a small group of people I know, family or friends.

Has it always been like that? When you were younger, did you mind travelling in groups?

No. I suppose my first travel trip was when I was in the Boy Scouts. It was a jamboree, we were very lucky, the first time we travelled across the channel to what we called Europe. Sometimes as you get older you prefer to travel with people you know and have something in common with.

How many countries have you been to?

I’ve been to every Anglophone country in Africa, every country in Europe apart from Norway because I never had the chance. It’s not the kind of country you’d think of going for a holiday and I’ve never had a work opportunity there. I’ve travelled to South Asia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel across South East Asia which is Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand even Papua New Guinea, I’ve never been to Australia. I have been to America, once to the States, to Washington, and to Latin America, Bolivia and Argentina. I was one of the first Brits to go to Argentina after Margret Thatcher’s war.

Which is the most interesting city to visit in the UK?

It has got to be London. As Samuel Johnson said in the 18th Century, ‘he who is tired of London is tired of life.’ London is big; its cosmopolitan nature is racing. If someone is visiting London for the first time then I’d say right in the heart of it, Trafalgar square, Piccadilly and so on.

What about Madame Tussauds?

What the wax museum? They don’t move but yes, it is interesting. Oh yes of course I’ve missed one place, Covent Garden, which used to be a vegetable market. My father used to sell vegetables there. He would drive a lorry and sell vegetables to wholesalers at Covent Garden, so I have a hazy memory of Covent Garden as a vegetable market. Now it’s an amazing shopping precinct, entertainment centre, so yes sitting for an hour or so in Covent Garden would be good. Of course go to the theatre at the West End and go watch a football match at Arsenal. I had an amazing experience there, when my son went to University, I took him and we went to see a match at Arsenal. We went through the gate and you know it has 70-80,000 people there.  Someone comes to us and tells me “hey John Fox”.  I couldn’t remember his name, he introduces his fiancée and says this is the man who gave me my first job. It was actually the Safari rally, I used to run the press centre for the Safari rally and he was one of the volunteers. So you can meet can people in the strangest of places.

What’s the most interesting souvenir you have brought from one of your holidays?

Well if you look around this place you will see lots of carvings and fabrics. What comes to mind would be a Makonde carving of the tree of life and it is this huge iconic carving. There’s a friend called Jim, an English guy, we used to call him ‘Jim fix it’, and I remember a time when I called him and said ‘Jim I just seen a carving, how can we get it back?’ He said, “What do you mean, I’ll get it back for you.” How I asked. He said don’t worry I’ll get it back, and he had a friend at Egypt Air so I get a phone call from this guy when in the UK and he says Oh by the way I’ve brought your carving. That one I love. I love Makonde carvings. One of my first trips in Africa was in Tanzania, and I think I would choose that.

So the makonde is from TZ and it was taken to the UK. When you came to live in Kenya did you come with it?

Yes.

Would you rather visit another country or travel within your country?

I think I’ve been to most places in Kenya but there’s one area I have not explored which is the drive up to East of L. Turkana, to the Matthews Range. That’s on the to do list. There’s still a lot of Kenya to see, Rwanda as well, I haven’t been to. I’ve worked in Burundi but I always hear amazing stories about Rwanda so I guess I should go to Kigali.

What are the popular destinations in Kenya that you would recommend?

If someone was coming for a holiday and they wanted to see wildlife, the big five, and they had very limited time, I would recommend that they go to the Ark in the Aberdare’s. When some friends came, they saw the big five in one night, they didn’t realize how unusual that was.

I think there too much focus by tourists on the big five but there’s plenty else to see. So if they have limited time and they want to see the big five they should go to the Ark. If they want to go to the coast, I would say Watamu, it’s a lovely beach, there are a variety of hotels, there are less expensive ones, and it’s quite the choice. Watamu is nice.

What advice would you give a newbie travelling outside the country for the first time?

One bit of advice is start taking photographs straight away. You know I came to Kenya for the first time for two years and it wasn’t until afterwards I wish I’d taken those photographs because the things that surprise you very quickly become common. One example, when I was first here, along going down Ngong Road to the right it was all thatched huts. I mean the transformation of Kenya in such a short time is so amazing, and I saw the women, Kikuyu women, carrying loads of firewood and cows crossing. Within a few days that was a common sight and I never took a photo, I got used to it and I realized I should have taken the picture the first time because that’s was the thing that hit me day one. So take records of what hits you from day one. I think the other thing is really get talking to people, don’t just stay in your little capsule, and also carry good shoes.

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