A Day In The Life....
A day in the life of a caretaker at The Farm
The day begins abruptly at exactly 6.15am! The alarm is three hoots from one bird with another whoop following immediately afterwards from its mate. It is loud, close by and repeats every few seconds for about 15 minutes. Just long enough for us to not bother going back to sleep. As we listen to this, other birds start chirping, screeching, cawing and the faithful old cockerel down the road also has his say!
The mornings are chilly. We have a very comfortable bed, with a duvet and a sleeping bag, lots of pillows and we are very snug and warm once inside. However, getting out of bed in the morning takes some effort. The air is cold, the tent is dark and once we decide to flee our warm nest, it’s action stations! Quick find the slippers we took from the hotel, as the floor is hard and cold and each floorboard creeks louder than grandma’s bones; grab a sweater; unhook the tent zipper, which takes some doing in the chilly air, especially when the loo is so desperately calling! Once the zipper is opened we are blinded by the sunlight and slip out head first, then shoulders, one leg, two legs and we are on our way to the bathroom. It’s like being reborn each day! As we adjust to the brightness our thoughts turn to the bathing area, hoping the night insects have all disappeared and the cobwebs are not too thick! We venture tentatively into the bathroom, hoping no wildlife has decided to take up residence during the night, and turn on the tap. The water is cold, but good to clean teeth and once done, the water becomes warmer. A quick wash; showering waits until the afternoon when the water is warmer due to the sun heating the solar panels. Our first three weeks were without hot water, the solar panel having broken. It took many attempts to get it fixed and during that time we would hop into a vacant cottage or use the outdoor bathroom. It was not ideal and we came close to packing several times! Eventually it was repaired and we now have very hot water in the afternoon, so all is well!
Then, what to wear? We brought plenty of clothes, so we layer ourselves as much as possible in the morning, only to peel each layer off as the day wears on and the sun blazes down from a bright blue sky. After 3pm, the wind gets up and gusts along the ravine so we gradually pull each layer back on, sometimes having to search for them around the property. Once we are dressed, we step out onto the deck and stand in the square foot of space where the sun hits the wood and warm ourselves like two old lizards, in order to get the circulation going and our limbs moving. Armed with phones, computer, storage key, bottles of water and liberally slathered with sunscreen we set off on our trek up to the lodge main area. The trek is not long, two hundred feet or so, but it is quite steep. Being over 6000ft above sea level does take some getting used to, and this trek took all our breath so by the time we reached the cottage area, we were huffing and puffing like a pair of old bellows. Now, we are finding it a little easier, so much so, we think we might plan a short hike on Mount Kenya! At the main lodge area, which is on top of the ridge the air is warmer and off comes our first layer!
Breakfast starts at 8.30am at the pool house, but we are usually at the kitchen by 7.30am looking for coffee to warm us and wake us up. We check the arrivals for the day, the check outs and also arrivals for the next day or two, making notes of dietary requirements and other requests from guests. So, gluten free, lactose intolerant, diets with no onions, ginger or garlic, halal, vegans, vegetarians, vegetarians but eat eggs, vegetarians but eat fish, no nuts…the list goes on! We write on the white board in the kitchen each guests’ requirements as the chefs cannot possibly keep up with all the necessary ‘special’ menus that are being requested. Personally I’d tell them to go self catering!
One of the tasks is to keep the key to the storage and issue all food and housekeeping and bar items to the staff. This is a full-time job, and most of my morning is spent unlocking and locking the store room, issuing items and logging them in the numerous books, one for each department or building. It’s quite laborious and we have made suggestions that this should all be computerized and small tablets be issued for each department. Of course, this will not be done. Money seems to be a problem and trusting the staff with electronics seems to be frowned upon. So, Marcel has set up numerous spreadsheets to see if items can be tracked more efficiently. I give out eggs, meats, oil, sugar, butter and all manner of ingredients to the chefs each day; washing powder, loo rolls, soap and shampoo to the housekeepers and beer, wine and soft drinks to the barmen. I’m amazed at how much dishwashing liquid is used, how much sugar there is in the food and how much wine we get through – and no, it’s not on my tab!
We check that the kitchen has everything it needs; check that the waiters have set the right number of place settings for guests, set the table with the correct cutlery and we have been trying to streamline the toast making process, but without much luck. We wait for guests to arrive and start their breakfast, greeting them with cheery smiles, and making sure they had a comfortable night. Then we seat ourselves and look forward to breakfast. We have a large platter of fruit each morning, freshly made muffins or scones, freshly squeezed passion fruit juice, or tree tomato juice. Then we can order eggs, bacon etc. and of course toast! Everything runs smoothly except the toast! The bread is homemade – (not as good as Marcel’s of course) and needs to be sliced. There is a very old 4 slice toaster which takes forever, so we have learned to order toast the minute we sit down. However that doesn’t always work. We either get it as we are eating our fruit so it is cold by the time the eggs have been ordered, cooked and placed on the table, or we get our eggs and home fries and the toast arrives just as we are scraping our plates. We hear the constant request of ‘more toast please’ from the guests and our hearts deflate, knowing ours will be another 10 minutes away. Guests come first! Finally, when toast arrives, we find the waiters have ‘borrowed’ our butter to replenish the guest table, so up to the kitchen to get the butter, cold toast again! We advised the waiters to pre-cook the toast then just drop it in the toaster again when guests arrived so they didn’t have to wait so long, but this proved to be a little awkward. Either they forgot to re-heat and the toast went to the table cold, or they left it in the toaster too long and it burned. A more efficient toaster or even just another would solve the problem, but of course that means spending more money!
Breakfast over, we check which activities the guests would like to do – walking, riding, a massage, bread-making, or just chilling out. Some need to book outside activities like safaris, or visits to forests or parks so that takes some time, phone calls and confirmations. Then its on to check that housekeeping have cleaned the rooms while guests were having breakfast, or to make sure they are cleaning for new arrivals. Flowers need to be replenished so a call to the farm garden is required, wood needs to be replenished in fireplaces so another call to the handyman, grass needs to be trimmed, the pool needs to be maintained and Marcel has been guiding the young woman who is responsible for maintaining this. She has had no training, just given a manual, so he went through the process and insisted they order the correct chemicals to keep the pool clean and clear. To date, I think we have had less than 6 people get into the pool – it is too cold! This is also the time we check out guests. Marcel is the money guy and adds up their bar bills, activity costs and presents them with their total. Unfortunately, there is no credit card machine, so people have to pay on MPESA which is a brilliant money transfer system here, but not all guests have that, especially those from overseas. So cash is another alternative, but if neither is possible, calls have to be made to the accountant to set up some other kind of transfer. The whole system is inefficient, unprofessional and amateur. We have now finally persuaded the owner to get a credit card machine, but at time of writing it is still not working as she has set up the account, but has not shared details and is currently away on vacation! Sigh….!
With everyone being industrious, we supervise, make sure the guests are happy and make notes of things that need improving, fixing, moving or repaired. I’ve organized the washroom so that all plates are stacked in their respective sizes, the cutlery is placed in separate containers so you can easily find spoons, teaspoons (very scarce), knives, serving spoons (also very scarce) and dishes and cups. I have seen all the cutlery thrown into a drawer and at each meal, the waiters have to sort through to find the place settings, which takes so much time. Plates were stacked on different shelves haphazardly and so many times mismatched items are used due to time constraints for the waiters. Not the 5 star service you would expect, as advertised. With two dining areas that are separated by many steps and stairs, it baffles me as to why we have to keep taking the salt and pepper shakers from one dining area to the other on a daily basis, along with water jugs, bottles of wine, bottle openers, etc. Just buy enough for each area!!! Honestly, there have been times when I felt like I was in an episode of Fawlty Towers! The waiter is asked by a client for an extra spoon, ‘of course sir’ and off he goes up 46 steps, another 50 paces to the washroom, scrambles through the cutlery draw to find the spoon, none there so the dishwasher sloshes through the sink to find one that he can quickly wash and dry. Then the waiter runs back across the garden, down the 46 steps to the dining room, ‘thank you’ – ‘by the way, could you get me some fresh chilies?’ Off he goes again, up the steps across the garden, into the kitchen. They look at him with surprise, find a sharp knife.. better wash it; what to put the chilies in? down to the washroom, search the table for a small dish, a saucer will have to do, back up to the kitchen. Chilies in the dish, off he runs again, through the garden, down the steps and ‘thank you’ – ‘you are welcome’! And so it goes on……Eventually we hope to help them streamline this better, with more equipment, and some forethought before they run up and down the steps for just one item. First rule of the dining room for a waiter, never enter or leave without something in your hand!
Guests who are arriving are greeted at the gate with a thermometer for a temperature check and asked to wash hands and wear masks. We are notified of their arrival on the walkie talkie and so don our masks and wait. The housekeepers rush to get juice and hot towels and by the time the guests have driven down the driveway we are ready to greet them. ‘Karibou’ – our Swahili is coming along! Most guests have come from Nairobi, a 4 hour drive, so are tired and weary, especially having just traveled the last 20 minutes on the bone shaking, deep rutted mud road from the main highway. Some have even extended their drive by 45 minutes due to following the google maps directions which are incorrect. There are no signs to the farm! Owner does not like signs! We take their bags and show them to their cottages, warning them of the many steps, and giving them a brief overview of the lodge. Once at the cottage, faces and hands wiped, juice chugged, we give our spiel about not drinking the water, about how to run the water in the shower into the bucket before the hot water comes through, tell them of the meal times, the activities and the different areas they can explore. Then we leave them to settle in, organize themselves and look forward to seeing them at lunch.
Lunch is served at the pool house, so no running up and down the stairs….yet! On sunny days this is a lovely place to enjoy a buffet lunch, a cool glass of wine and scour the ridge for wildlife. However, when the wind whips up and the clouds roll in, it can be quite chilly and stressful, with napkins flying, glasses toppling and ornaments falling off shelves! Right now, nothing can be fixed to the walls, and our suggestion of plastic stemware was frowned upon. Just wait until the broken glass ends up in the pool and it has to be drained! The frown will become an expression of horror when the bill arrives! Lunch is light, usually a main with salad. For the first few weeks two salads were served, but after some persuasion I have convinced them that three is a better choice when serving salad, buffet style. We have introduced some new recipes here which have gone down very well indeed.
Once lunch is over, things quieten down. Guests go off to relax, or do their assigned activities. The staff take a break and Marcel and I do our own chores, sending clothes to the laundry, sweeping out the tent, getting more sawdust for the loo, or if there is a particular chore to do, like reorganizing a room, moving furniture, or updating spreadsheets we crack on with that. We eventually make our way back down our steep track to the tent for an hour or two of relaxation, reading or snoozing, then take a hot shower in our outside bathroom and dress ready for the evening session.
Bitings are at 6.30 pm. This is like cocktail hour with canapes and is usually held in the party house, where a log fire roars and guests can convene to chat. It is a little awkward during COVID as some people want to be seated further apart, and there is only a large dining table that seats 12, plus a small oval foyer table. We have had to resort to the backgammon table at times to seat those who do not want to be in close proximity to other guests. We have also carried tables from the pool area down those blasted steps on many occasions, only to have to take them back the next day for lunch! The party house is filled with artifacts from the owners’ travels and many, many books for guests to peruse while they relax on paisley and rose patterned sofas. It is quintessentially English sitting room, except for the many hats, and collars and shoes that come from places such as Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Uzbekistan and such far flung places. In the center of the room is a large glass coffee table with numerous ‘coffee table’ books, a large vase of flowers, a Koran stand, a pair of shoes that look like they came out of ‘The King and I’, all perched in each corner and down the center of the table. The dilemma is where to place the platter of bitings, and where do guests place their gin and tonics, or cocktails. Let’s see, the most obvious thing would be to move some of the items towards the middle of the table, or remove them completely, which I duly did on the very first night. Unfortunately this was a definite ‘no, no’. The owner came down for bitings; (she never stayed for dinner), waving her arms in greeting to everyone and loudly announcing that she was the owner, only then to take one look at the coffee table and instantly return all the items to the original place, within an inch! Oh well, I’d have to wait until she was away to do that again. In the meantime, the guests sat with their glasses in hand, not quite sure where they should put their cocktails lest they spill on the books or artifacts.
After introductions and polite conversations, bitings are over and dinner is ready to be served. The waiters ask us to seat the guests at the table, which we duly did at the beginning, but realized that the meal would take another ten to fifteen minutes to arrive, due to the chef not plating until the guests were seated and of course the epic trek down from the kitchen. As you can imagine, by the time the food arrived it would be warm at best. We rarely received complaints, but by the silence or looks on the faces of some of the guests, it was clearly not quite what they had been expecting and we had several ask us what was the ‘thinking’ behind this concept. Clearly there wasn’t any, but we answered politely that it was a ‘work in progress!’ After a few weeks and when we had fewer guests, we started to bring the food down in large bowls and serve it buffet style, thus making sure it was hot and only one journey down the steps. It worked well, but obviously was not ideal due to COVID restrictions. Still, no-one seemed to mind and there were no enforcements this far north of the city it seemed. Dinner over, the plates cleared (luckily these would be washed the following morning by one of the girls, and then transported back up to the kitchen – hopefully ready in time for breakfast!) guests were invited to sit by the fire for nightcaps. Most decided to call it a night as it was usually 9 pm by this time. After discussing breakfast times, activities for the next day, and ensuring everyone could see their way back to their cottages we make sure the fire was out, the barman was cleaning the glasses and then run up to the kitchen to thank the chef and staff for another successful evening. If anyone did stay, Marcel and I would chit chat for a while but then leave them to finish their evening alone with the barman at their service and make our way back to the tent, down the steep path with our torches (which turned out to be the best purchase we made for the whole trip!) and quickly undress and jump into our bed to warm up!
As we lay relaxing, we would often hear the elephants crashing around on the ridge, or hyenas calling to one another or dogs from the local village barking at the wildlife to stay away. But mostly were heard that darn cockerel - the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning!
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