Friday, January 29, 2010

Rough Truck Ride to Nairobi

This story is abridged. I'd love to put in all the good parts. Maybe in some other format some day. For now, we're just going to give you the basics.

Up to this point, I've refused to specify an ending date to my trip. This isn't just to keep people in suspense or some ear of commitment. This is because I knew that transport in a lot of Africa is notoriously unpredictable. I'd been warned. So when I found out that a 700km journey was going to take me three days instead of the seven hours it would have taken in any developed and most developing countries, I shouldn't have been surprised. The buses in southern Ethiopia leave when they are full, not before. They stop whenever someone inside or outside wants to stop them, be they passengers, chaat sellers, or the cops looking for a bribes. In a surreal moment, one of the cops told the driver he was fining him for having more passengers than seats. May seem reasonable back home, but if you've ever ridden any form of Ethiopian transport, you know this is a bit like ticketing someone for driving with only one hand on the steering wheel.

There was a stay in the closest thing I've ever seen to a wild west frontier town before I finally made the border, knowing I'd just finished the easy part. Getting from the northern Kenyan border to the capital of Nairobi over land was the legendary challenge, one that native Kenyans had tried and sworn off.

The road is a dirt road, corrugated by lack of maintenance with potholes big enough to hide a VW bug. A few years ago, Somali bandits made this road impassable without an armed convoy. Now the Kenyan army has cracked down enough so that you just pay your way onto a truck carrying cattle or beans for a day and a half to Isiolo, 3 hours north (by paved road) of Nairobi. You pay a bit more to sit in the cabin up front, otherwise you're out in back, sitting on metal bars above the truck's load. It's quite safe, so they tell me. They also tell me that the ubiquitous dude on each truck, riding on top of the cab, in camo carrying a rifle, is just another traveler going home.

I crossed out of the famously (mostly) unconquered African land into the ashes of the British empire. Slightly more infrastructure, cars on the left side of the road, and clunky UK-style electrical plugs are back. So is English as the dominant language. Except for trilingual Lebanon, this is the first English speaking territory I've been in since Hong Kong, back in July (though Amsterdam could make a case as well). Kiswahili is close on English's heels. You hear it everywhere, even if finding it written down takes effort.

Kids no longer stare at me or yell "you you you". Mzungus, as we're known around here, aren't an oddity anymore. We're just a cash machine. The best description I have seen of Moyale, Kenya was a fellow blogger who posted a picture of a seat-less overflowing toilet in his hotel, calling it a metaphor. Upon entering town, I was beset by seven touts (or “brokers” as they call them here) in less than twenty minutes. One cussed me out for ignoring him (and got really scared when I asked "if he wanted to speak to me"), another followed me into my hotel, offering to wake me up the next day for the truck he wanted to sell me a ride on, and another after that found me in an internet cafe and insisted it was time for me to get on his truck right then and there.

As usual, I got lucky and met people. The people this time were a Kenyan reporter doing an investigative piece on tribal conflict, an Israeli backpacker who'd fallen head over heels for the country, and a very quiet friend of theirs. We spent a little time trying to make a local NGO's internet connection work before the Israeli and I made arrangements to head south together on the same truck, the reporter acting as our negotiator for a fair price.

One of the brokers actually did track me down to my room at 7am the next morning to wake me up, insisting it was time to go on his truck. I politely told him to get lost, and another followed me to my room after seeing me across a balcony on my way to the bathroom. More hilarity ensued.

We made our way through it all and got on a truck at a fair price. With one thing after another, the Israeli convinced me it would be a better ride on the back of the truck instead of in the cab. We'd each save at least $13, and we'd get a better view.

At first I thought she was right. But I was picturing just the two of of us, maybe two other locals, on soft bags of... something. Turned out we were squeezing ourselves onto sacks of ginger or the metal crossbars above them with twenty-two other passengers, and though we didn't know it yet, we'd be picking up even more.

That was an adventure. I'll cut the details and just leave you with the headlines and hooks. The lush greens did gradually give way to spectacular rock deserts. We had a very nice catholic Kenyan man who just couldn't believe there could be someone from Jerusalem who hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as the messiah. We blew a tire with a sound that prompted our armed man to load and ready his rifle, causing half of us drop from the crossbars and hit the ginger sacks. There was a long discussion of the merits of communism while sitting atop the spar tire, witching the stars. Then there was the dinner stop where they never turned off the engine, convincing me that we wouldn't have time to eat. Meaning I went most of the journey without any food.

In other brilliant moves by yours truly, when everyone set up to go to sleep, I noticed that nobody was going for the covered back area, they were all packing themselves into the front in uncomfortable positions. It did occur to me that there was something they knew that I didn't, but I figure they just didn't like being in the covered section. So I found a stack of cardboard and laid it out in the back. I realized my mistake when we started moving. My position put me right above the back axle, meaning every time it hit a bump (roughly once every ten yards), I would be shot up a foot into the air. Sleeping on cardboard I can grudgingly do. Sleeping while flying up into the air and landing on cardboard every few seconds is just a little too much. So I headed back forward. One of the Muslim girls helped me find a three-foot spot on the ginger sacks crunched between three people and a sack of hard-heeled shoes. If you've ever gone camping and found you'd put your sleeping bag on a root, you understand that this isn't very comfortable. Ginger is a root. Imagine sleeping on a sack of tree roots. Now imagine trying to do it after you've been bouncing up and down on a steel rail for ten to twelve hours. I gave up within fifteen minutes.

I ended up sitting in an improvised sling big enough for one modestly overweight person, strung out between the rails. I was sharing it with the guard, who was bundled up with about five layers against the wind chill, which I'm guessing was around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. I spent the night trying nod off with half of my extremely sore butt in a burlap sling with the butt of a rifle lodged across my lap, while four old guys chewing chaat leaves (a stimulant similar to coca) yelled at each other. The sling didn't rip in half until we'd nearly arrived.

The only upside was the scenery and the animals. Among other things, I saw tons of African hares, the smallest deer I'd ever seen, not much bigger than a large cat, lot of birds, and the silhouette of my first wild African Elephant.

When I finally arrived in Nairobi, twelve hours later, I was sunburned, severely dehydrated, and very very sore. I was also filthy. People in the microbus from Isiolo to Nairobi tried very hard not to look at me. I hadn't eaten in over twenty-four hours. I had slept about half an hour. I dragged my stinking unshaven body across to the first restaurant I found, spent what felt like an eternity just putting my bag down and sitting. When I washed my hands, the water coming off of them may or may not have stained the sink dust brown permanently. The chicken in my stew was the toughest, chewiest fowl I'd ever eaten, so I haven't been back to check.

I got information from my usual sources. I wasn't sure I was in good enough shape to pull off the stunt of getting a free tourist map and orientation from the local luxury hotels, but the internet cafe was the cheapest in town and gave me the number of a hostel, though it had no formal address. After a half hour hike uphill, I shoved past a group of evangelical Christians in residence, and finally got myself a much needed bed and shower.

And that was how it started. I've spent a lot of time since then getting errands done. My passport has had yet more pages added, right side up this time. After a lot of frustration wandering through camera shops full of nothing but Sonys and Kodaks, I scored big time and found a fantastic deal on a pocket Canon compact with manual controls and a 10x optical zoom. Combined with the 4x digital, that's a virtual zoom of 40x magnification.

And starting in about ten hours, I'm going to be putting that particular feature to very good use. Just how I'll do it is for you to guess. Until next post of course. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Check out this entry's old fashioned film camera Photos. Because we're blogging likes it's 1999 (...before blogging existed. Yes).


  1. Family who are familiar with bovines will be glad you knew enough not to ride in back with cattle. There are worse things to be covered with than dust. Looking forward to pictures when it becomes possible. Anonymom.

  2. Glad you got that shower. How many pages is that passport now? And do you have a specific ending time, or is your continued presence in Africa going to block that?

  3. I had to giggle about your comment on blogging from the 90's! Hope you replace your camera, as I know I would be lost without mine! PS) Glad to see you reposting again. Does your mother have a healthy heart?? =)