This, Too, Is Kenya: Part I
(As I write this post, I find that I’ve been emailing so much on smart phones lately that I keep expecting Word to finish my words for me. What do you mean I have to type the whole thing myself?!?)
We arrived home last Tuesday evening at rush hour, collected our car from long-term parking at Sea-Tac, and got on the road, me driving. More or less perfectly healthy during the entire trip (nominal bouts of “kaka huraka”* notwithstanding), on Monday, our last day in Africa (we left at 11:30pm), Ian developed a nasty cold, and I, three hours after breakfast, developed a much more grim case of the runs. This was no annoying but predictable fast brother—this was serious, Roto-Rooter stuff. Fortunately for me, we had supplied ourselves not only with our malaria prophylaxis, but also a powerful antibiotic, just in case.
“Take two per day for three days,” it said, “or take four all at once.” I thought about our upcoming travel: 8 ½ hours to London, 8 hours in London, 9 hours to Seattle. Four all at once, please.
The drug worked beautifully and so, while Ian continued to worsen the closer we got to home, I got better and better, the guts rapidly quieting and solidifying. Ergo, me in the driver’s seat in traffic, just about my least favorite position in the world to be in. What a welcome.
Except that, compared to Nairobi, Mombasa, and the intensely dangerous highway between the two, it was like driving down the middle of a six-lane LA freeway after an epidemic has wiped out 98% of the population (obviously before they all got on the road in their cars). Comparatively everyone here used a turn signal before changing lanes. Comparatively everyone here allowed safe distances between vehicles—i.e. more than 3 ½ inches. Comparatively everyone here, in fact, drove in a staid, boring, predictable manner. And the roads were smooth like newly-Zambonied ice.
Kenya, I found after 15 ½ years, was exactly the same and completely different. The cars on the roads now are contemporary, well-maintained, normal cars such as you might see anywhere in the world (i.e. mostly Japanese coupes and sedans, with the occasional German luxury car thrown into the mix). The delivery trucks, however, are the same 60’s-era junkers that have been befouling the air since their inception. The roads, too, seem to be—still—the tattered remnants of British infrastructure. The one exception in Nairobi is that several new ring-type roads are being built to ease congestion in the center of this city of 3,000,000.
New roads are a fine idea. Unfortunately, all that was accomplished in this major public works program before the short rains came (and they may be short, but they’re nervy), was clearing all the vegetation and carving out the basic road grades. Most countries (one might imagine), when faced with a two-month nature-predicated hiatus, would cut their losses and hang back, waiting for the conditions to change. Kenya, knowing that no further work could be done on this new network for several weeks, decided the roads were good enough unpaved for the time being and opened them up to public use, effectively turning several neighborhoods into ochre mud, off-roading, car-luge pleasure parks.
Of course, traffic crawls along (when it isn’t slewing about)—but here’s the thing about rush hour in Kenya: you can do most of your necessary shopping while stuck in your car, waiting for your turn at the kipilefti (Swahili for roundabout—they drive on the left there). You could buy a caged songbird, or a fluffy white puppy (as pets, not to eat). You could collect the ingredients for a tropical fruit salad (mangos were in season!). You could buy your lover a bouquet of flowers or a lottery ticket or a packet of gum or cigarettes. Have a job interview in the morning, or ten minutes from now? You could professionalize your upcoming interview with any of a dozen different sport coats. The evening paper is delivered right to your window along with a bottle of cold water. You could even, as Ian discovered to our delighted admiration, top up the minutes on your cell phone.
Cell phones and cell service in Kenya have got to be the pinnacle of the technology anywhere in the world. On our first full day in the country (after breaking our fast with Helen) we were taken to a Safaricom store where we purchased—for $1—a SIM card for Ian’s 4G Android phone. For another $5, we bought enough credits for email, picture uploading, and, of course, phone calls, for the next few days, until we were able to top up in a traffic jam. Everyone in Kenya has a cell phone—or more often two. There were originally two major networks and each network offered in-network deals, and so people started acquiring phones so they could get the deals with all their friends and families. Making calls costs you credits but receiving calls does not, and if you’re out of credits, there is a free text you can send, up to three times, asking someone to call you. Much of the country has never had wired phone service; most of that area now has excellent cell coverage. Most rural people don’t have electricity with any regularity, but there are kiosks in every community where you can charge up your batteries as well as your credits. Perhaps one of the best discoveries for us was that there are zoned international dialing plans included, and the US is in Zone 1, the cheapest, and for 10 cents per minute we could call our families from anywhere we had service. Which was everywhere.
Cell phones also took a lot of the stress out of getting around: you find a taxi driver you like, take his number (invariably men in our experience), and call him whenever you need a ride. Easy as pie. Also, when you do ultimately make up your mind on where you want to sleep the next night, you can just call up the number listed in the Lonely Planet. You then find that the Lonely Planet exclusively lists out-of-date numbers for hotels in Kenya, but with your 4G you can just look up the website of the place directly (websites are not as cutting-edge as cell phones, alas, and we usually just showed up at hotels unannounced. Being Kenya, it always worked out).
Being Kenya, it always worked out. That hadn’t changed at all.
Everyone was genuinely nice and helpful (and most warned us about everyone else). At our hotel in Naivasha, Simon the accountant took a turn as a taxi driver and dropped us at Mt Longonot for our hike (8 miles, about 3,000 feet gained and lost in elevation, beginning at around 6,000 feet—so, thin, pant-for-it air for us maritime Seattleites).
Our eagle-eyed guide, John (I think his name was John. Most of them were named John), pointed out millimeter-high giraffes grazing thousands of feet below us, as well as all sorts of vegetation and other fauna. I used to debate whether or not getting a guide was a necessary or desired expense; I’ve mostly switched to using guides when they are offered. Our guide told us a story of an American couple who chose not to use a guide about two months ago—the man was evidently a largish man, and he died of a heart attack almost at the peak, about a 3-hour hike from the gate. The guides had to come to the rescue of his wife and his body, carrying him down a trail that was, often, little more than a pumice-covered scramble. The folks had taken the difficult way around. Anyway, we were glad for the assistance, the direction, and the “giraffes” grazing in the “tall trees” far below.
We called Simon as we neared the end of our climb so that he could “pick us” as soon as we got to the bottom. “We want to take a bus from Nairobi to Mombasa tomorrow,” we told him as we drove back into town. “Where should we get a matatu that will take us back to Nairobi?”
“Okay,” Simon said, “I will just show you where to go for the best company.” And he drove us a few blocks out of the way just so he could point out the safe matatu stand. Safe, regulated matatus: that’s a definite change from last time.
Our two nights in Naivasha aside from the hike were not particularly wonderful, but they were gloriously comfortable and posh for $30 each night. We had a private bath with with a dripping shower head (when it was on; otherwise it was silent. It never really counted as a “shower”, and in fact I think I didn’t even try to take one.) There were two sagging beds and holey, just barely too-small-for-the-beds mosquito nets, and so we each took a bed and did the best we could our own selves. We enjoyed some beers and curries and chapatis, wandered briefly and nervously in the gloaming around the dusty, muddy, stinky, noisy town; and more nervously yet, withdrew a big pile of cash from an ATM.
Naivasha was our first real town on our own, the first place where we didn’t have a fall-back plan in case we encountered some of those awful people we kept being warned about. Naivasha seemed ripe to be full of villains, to our untrained eyes. The commotion unsettled us, and knowing we were going to be holding a lot of cash unsettled us more. But it turns out, commotion is Kenya. Dirt is Kenya. A lot of black people living their lives is Kenya. And the 5 a.m. matatu to Nairobi, up to 18 people crammed in a 4-row minivan (some were dropped; some were picked)--regulated or not, that, too, is Kenya.
The only time I really lost it on this trip, and I think it was a pretty minor example of losing it, was just after arriving in Nairobi, safely, in our matatu. We were dropped somewhere along River Road, which lives in my memories as a place you were much better off avoiding completely, except for when you wanted to go anywhere but Nairobi. All the long-distance buses and matatus congregate along River Road, and it is full of bustle, hustle, and crime.
“If a nicely-dressed man bumps into you accidentally,” one Kenyan friend warned, “it was not an accident. He is picking your pocket.” No one bumped us, and no one once picked any of our pockets.
We walked along quickly, trying to look like we knew where we were going, trying to blend in. Not fooling anyone. We arrived safely at Akamba Bus with its secure waiting room before 8 am, hoping to catch their first bus to Mombasa. Turns out we were in plenty of time.
“No bus this morning,” said the man behind the counter. “Tonight. For two?” he pulled his ticket ledger toward himself.
“Shit!” I said, and pumped my fist like a baby.
“No thanks,” said Ian to the agent, and turned to me. “We have a couple choices. We can get in a taxi and go to the airport. There are supposed to be five flights per day to Mombasa.”
“But I don’t WANT to fly!” I wailed (I am not the Abercrombie and Kent type!) “I want to TAKE THE BUS!” (who is this person insisting on the bus, I thought. I hate the bus.)
“Okay,” said Ian again, "then how about THIS plan: we go find a taxi driver to take us to another bus company, another good one, that will have buses leaving this morning.”
I pulled it together. “Okay,” I sniffled. “That sounds very smarty-pants.”
It was very smarty-pants: we crossed the street to the taxi stand and walked up to the first one. “I’ll give you 1,000 shillings to find us a bus to Mombasa,” Ian said. The driver smiled broadly and welcomed us into his car. Ten dollars—nothing to sneeze at in Kenya.
Within ten minutes we were at another bus company purchasing our “premium” tickets for $17 each (or maybe total? It was preposterously cheap . . . if you lived through the journey). We were ushered into another clean, secure waiting room, and I relaxed into a new panic: food, and more importantly, caffeine. Surprising perhaps, but Starbucks has yet to wedge in amongst the Kenyan chai shops.
“Chai,” I said to Ian. “Chai. I need some. What do we do?”
On a roll, Ian, who had been discovering all over the place that if you wanted something—anything—just ask the nearest Kenyan, went up to the guard at the door of the waiting room of Mash Poa Buslines (Much Power? Like the Citi Hoppa bus, City Hopper?), carrying my peripatetic mug, and asked if there was a place nearby to get some masala chai.
“Here,” said the guard, “come with me.” He guided Ian across the street to a busy storefront with a line snaking out the door. He explained to the guard at the door of the shop what Ian wanted. The shop guard held out his hand and Ian passed over the mug and some shillings.
“Chai for two?” asked the shop guard.
The shop guard popped into the shop, skipped the line, got the mug filled and returned with it and Ian’s change in a matter of seconds. Ian was back in the waiting room—with the best chai I have ever tasted in hand—in under 3 minutes. Kenya is AWESOME.
My premium seat on the bus turned out to be the very front seat, to the left and up a level from the driver, who was down in a bit of a well. There was a grab bar, presumably after-market, a couple feet in front of my seat, the seat reclined to a pleasingly comfortable flatness, and I rested my feet on the bar, sipped at my chai, and watched the world go by at breakneck speed. And then I fell asleep, which I proceeded to do for a total of about 85% of our entire ride. It was my only defense against dying of fear.
Ian was across the aisle next to the classic African Mama, with her headscarf, her comfortable bosoms, her colorfully printed clothes, and her woven bags full of the shopping. He didn’t have quite the same view of our endlessly repeating, petrifying traffic near-misses. I took a couple pictures of the vehicles mere inches in front of us as we barreled down the 8-hour, 2-lane road to the sea. Frequently the pictures are close-ups of the back of fuel trucks. “Danger, Petroleum” said signs looming in the windshield in front of me.
For all the near misses (at least by my perspective), we had an almost completely boring ride; the one exception being a totally non-official road block midway through our journey.
We arrived at the strip of a town just behind two trucks hauling things (bananas? goats? petrol?). Our bus driver, not wanting to be third in line for any reason at all, just moved over into the empty right lane (oncoming traffic having been stopped at the other end of town) in an attempt to push on through, while maybe 20 young men hurriedly carried and rolled reddish boulders across the lanes. They were just faster than we were, and the driver sighed and turned off the engine.
“What do they want,” I gasped to the bus conductor, who was lounging on a large, wedge-shaped speaker covered in carpeting. He sort of shook his head at me, then got up and left the bus. Who knows?
As the group of men finished blocking the road, several of them picked up extra boulders, formed a loose gang, and started toward our bus. I wanted a picture, but much more, I wanted to stay as unnoticed as possible. I felt very exposed, the white woman lounging in the front seat, wearing a bright red polka-dotted skirt and an orange sweater. The men surged around the bus and started shouting, some of them banging their rocks against the side of the bus. I desperately had to pee (Nina hitaji kuji saidia: “I need to help myself”), but I watched regretfully as other, braver passengers than me blithely left the bus and situated themselves, men on one side and women on the other, to do their business. I knew we had an official stop, for lunch and toilets, in about 30 minutes. Well, if the road opened up soon.
A police jeep appeared out of nowhere, though, not long after the roadblock did, and a police officer calmly told everyone to stop being such boobs and clear away the rocks. In seconds, the rocks were being rolled back off of the road (with some assistance from older, more mature members of the community—there was a man in a 3-piece suit helping); passengers zipped up and dashed back onto the bus, and we were on our way.
Thirty minutes later we were at a roadside buffet, I’d peed (squat, no paper), and we were eating some sort of curry and rice. We decided that the young men in the previous town had been interested in extracting bribes, since it was clear that they weren’t going to be able to legitimately make money if everyone was already stopping 20 km away.
One of the difficult things about traveling in Kenya, the whole Kenya, and the real Kenya, is that there are such vast distances—cultural, socioeconomic—between peoples. There are still nomadic pastoralists, including the Maasai, the Samburu, and the Turkana. The Maasai, even today, had herds of cattle grazing in the outskirts of Nairobi. “You can’t reason with them,” one of our drivers said. “’You can’t graze your cattle there,’ a policeman will say to them, and they just look confused. ‘Are you going to eat this grass?’ they ask. “Because our cows need this grass.’ Crazy.”
First world entitlement and first world guilt work at cross-purposes in Kenya, leading to, at least for me, some moral discomfort. It is so easy to avoid the grubby, over-stimulating, foreign parts of Kenya. Stay in the airports and the air, in the beach resort hotels, in the five-star tented camps. Travel with Abercrombie and Kent (and Prince Charles). Visit Giraffe Manor. You’ll stay clean, safe, well-fed. But you’ll completely avoid pickpockets, traffic that appears to be handfuls of Matchbox cars dropped from the heavens, the unique stench of tropical cities, families teaching their young children to beg. Awesome, you say, give me that Kenya any day! And we did enjoy the coolth and quiet of a fancy, air-conditioned hotel room in Mombasa, and giraffes, and a private safari. But that Kenya is only a few grains of salt in the pig (most of those grains not going to Kenyans), and the whole experience tastes a lot more gourmet if you dump that pig out and spread the salt lavishly around your visit. Instead of feeling guilty about your good luck, take a bus ride. Stay in a cheap hotel. Use local transit. Note: if all you want is grubby, over-stimulating, and foreign, plus cloths and jewels and excellent food, Mombasa is just what you’re after.
* a sort-of “swahinglish” euphemism coined in 1993 by my schoolmates and me: “huraka”: hurry/fast; “kaka”: brother.