Day 221: Weighed down in African public transport


Matatu, local forms of transport in Kenya, are highly decorative and often bizarre. Photo: Teemeah

FIVE across the back seat of the bus from Mombasa to Kilifi is tight. How the sixth lady, a wide-hipped young grandmother with a child in tow, managed to squeeze in is hard to fathom. However, that was blatantly clear was the irritation on the faces of everyone else on the back seat, as well as her own irritation at the driver, who pushed her to sit on the sliver of seat.

I'm crammed against the window, my bulging laptop bag – which is now bigger than most people's day bags – consumes my leg room. My large drone backpack is on my lap.

I'm ready to be back on a bike, even if it's not a Kibo. The ride to Mombasa from Nairobi and then up to Kilifi is a lovely reminder of why motorcycle travel is so ideal.

“It's not safe to walk. Better to spend only the three dollars,” the man behind the counter at Karen Camp tells me this afternoon.

It's 3:30pm, in what seems like a relatively safe area, though it is a bit out of town: no wonder I'm becoming paranoid about my phone being stolen.

The driver takes me to a major intersection, where it's possible to take a matatu – local mini-van – transfer to Nairobi's city center.

A young, dark-skinned man hustles me into a matatu, and away we go. My laptop bag is too big to fit on the floor by my feet at the front of the van where I large flat screen flickers as it loses signal. Rap music blasts from the Kenwood speaker a meter from my face. With window seat next to me is vacant.

I'm content clutching my bag in one hand to ensure nobody grabs it and hops off the bus. My phone is zipped up in my right-hand pocket – building good habits. I battle the temptation to get it out to play Tinder. I don't want people to know I have such a nice phone.

On a scarp of paper in my pocket is the name of the road the bus company I want to book with: Oxygen. “Kenyan National Archive”, where I need to get out of the minivan, is also scrawled onto the piece of paper.

Loaded down with my stuffed bag, the freedom that I'd felt when I took my first matatu yesterday has evaporated. Why do I always have so much stuff? I'm headed to the coast for the week and have packed a slackline, camera, lenses, piles of magic tricks, toiletries, cards, several sets of clothes and the list feels like it could go on forever. The strap to the laptop bag broke immediately from the weight.

A voluptuous woman dressed in a tight maroon dress boards the bus.

“It's fine. Leave it where it is,” she says with a big smile, shooing over me to the window seat, away from my bag, which is tightly nestled in the aisle.

More than a month of writing, photos and videos that have yet to be backed up are on the laptop.

The woman beams a big smile at me.

“It's hot,” she says.

Sitting in a hoodie because there was no room in my bag to pack it, I can full-heartedly agree.

Momentarily forgetting me, the woman pulls at the neck of her dress and appears to give her breasts a couple tentative sniffs.

I can't see my bag at all. The woman has placed her large clear bag with a new comforter on it. On her lap is her black pursue.

No matter how I position myself, I can't see the bag. But there's nothing to do. If this woman was a front-man for a bag swipe, she'd be perfect. Too lovely, too polite and too talkative, but not so talkative that it would arouse suspicion.

Anxiously, I await our stop.

“So do you know how to get there?” the woman asks.

“Yeah, I've found it on a map. I've got a good idea.” She smiles politely, but doesn't believe me.

The buildings start to grow taller and more beautiful as we enter the city center. There are still plenty of cement buildings, enormous ones, but also some efforts at beauty in the architectural designs.

I'm relieved to see my bag beneath the comforter when we disembark.

“Come,” I'll take you. “I go to Mombasa on Simba on Saturday, so I'll buy a ticket now.”

She offers to help carry my bags. I politely decline.

“Ah!” She spots a colleague on the median.

Her colleague, an older middle-aged woman is dressed in vibrant orange patterned African cloth with a matching head wrap.

She get's my new friend's number.

The older woman, her face full of wrinkles, a pair of thin framed glasses on her nose, tells me to make sure I take care of my valuables as there are lots of pickpockets in the area.

“She told me that I better take care of you. Here, let me take your bag,” my bus buddy says. “Is it heavy? Have one of them take it. I'll pay. Don't worry.”

All around us are men with dollies to help navigate the network of bus companies and minivans.

“It's okay. It really is.”

“You must be strong.”

I laugh.

“No, but there is only one way to get strong.”

I try to switch the bag from my left hand to the right without her noticing as we cross another street. The thing is damn heavy. Why did I bring a slack line again?

Unlike traffic in Vietnam, which will drive at you but not actually hit you. Vehicles backing up seem perfectly fine pumping into people as they go.

The woman in maroon stops to ask directions several times, her pace quickening as she passes the bus company from which she's to get her ticket.

“Wait, is that where you're getting your ticket? I can find it from here,” I offer.

She'll have none of it.

We stop at a large blue building with piles of parcels and luggage overflowing three shorts rows of waiting chairs bolted into the cement.

“It's full. You have to come this way,” a man who attaches himself to us says.

The woman in maroon believes him and is ready to hike farther downhill, to the office of whatever company he wants me to book.

“It's okay. I'll check this out first.,” I say.

I get in line. It's an exceptionally long line winding through the parcels.

Building up a bit of courage, I ask if this is the line for Mombasa.

Yes, it is. If, you're a parcel.

I switch to the much shorter passenger line.

The ticket man issues me a ticket for the 11pm bus to Mombasa – they are not sold out. There are three options: normal, first class and VIP. The die says I should take a First Class seat, which is only two dollars more than normal and two dollars less than VIP.

With ticket in hand, I've got six hours to kill and too much stuff to carry to explore the city.

It's total chaos in front of the bus station: a mess of minivans, buses and people fill the wide road area. On the far side there are all sorts of businesses, large letters painted on their walls to mark them. Most seem to be hotels, dingy hotels. One is bragging about having fully-enclosed rooms, which raises a lot of questions.

Down the street is a dirty place marked as a cafe. There are decorative irons in the windows. It's full with locals having a bit to eat, mostly piece of mndazi or a rolled-up chapati with mugs of chai. All the tables are full; I nod to the man across the table from me as I join him.

One of the waitresses, all of who are dressed in salvaged lab coats, comes to take my order. It's a process, as there is no menu.

“It's not fried chicken. It's soup,” she says.

“Sounds perfect.”

“What do you want with that?”

“What are my options?” I ask with the soft, pleasant tone of Elwood P Dowd.

We go with the chapati, as well as a coffee.

Sitting down across from me is an incredibly old man with a swollen tongue wagging in his mouth, only a few teeth left and the cuffs of his 1970s patterned dress shirt rolled up over the ends of the smoking jacket that's nearly swallowed up his entire body.

“Do you speak Italian?” he asks.

I do not. Though enjoy listening to him talk. With the help of the other man at the table, I'm informed that the Italian speaking man is 93 years old. He probably learned Italian in some connection to Mussolini pushing into Africa during WWII.

“I'm going to take him,” the waitress tells the old man, “him” referring to me. She's been taking great care of me, chopping up the pieces of chicken for the soup, but placing it in a separate bowl so I could eat it by hand.

Ten minutes later, she tells him the same thing again, not looking at me, but making sure I hear her.

Time is traveling slower than at the Mad Hatter's dining table.

Carefully, I try to balance two 20 Shilling coins on top of each other – edge to edge. Despite my magic ring, they've got a propensity to roll apart.

“What are you doing?”

“Balancing these. It's harder than in Thailand.”

I've got it: the silver rim of the coin with the golden center stands perfectly balanced on the other coin. A couple diners watch.

“You're a genius,” the waitress say. A magician, a bad magician, would be a more appropriate classification, but up to her.

It's been an hour. It's only been an hour.

I pay my tab.

“Where are you going?” the waitresses asks.

“Mombasa.”

“You'll take me with you?”

“Sure. What time do you get off work?” I say with a joking smile.

Back out on the street, I wander the other direction, hoping to find a more western-style cafe in which I can comfortable settle. Up a dark set of stairs into a building complex, I arrive in a small cafe, much like the first, but this one is overlooking the chaos in the streets. The window bangs shut, startlingly me as I order a coffee.

A couple hours later, everyone is gone besides the staff.

“I'm sorry. What time do you closes?”

“It depends. We have run out of food already.”

“Oh, okay, I'll let you guys leave. How much is it?”

She says something in English, but for the life of me I don't understand. Eight attempts later, I simply hold out a large bill.

“Do you not have any change?”

I hold out a fistful of change.

She pulls out thirty Shilling.

“Thirty is enough for me,” she says.

My bladder is about to burst, as the cafe didn't have a bathroom. However, a corner restaurant back toward the bus station does. A Spanish woman in her late 30s is sitting at one of the crowded tables.

She watches my bags so I can snake past heaps of trash to the back of the restaurant to use the bathroom.

She's taking a 10:30pm bus to Mombasa.

“I know a place, like a bar, nearbu that we can have a beer,” she suggests. “I'll first go get my bag and then talk to my father. I've not talked to him in a couple weeks.”

Down a narrow entrance to a hotel, I'm starting to wander how she found this place. Up a set of steps and through one of the doors, we find ourselves bathing in strip-club pink lighting. It's a local dive that the unbelievably helpful security guard at the restaurant we were eating at showed her when she had asked for a beer earlier today. She orders a Tusker – the beer of Kenya. The die orders me a White Cap larger.

We sip at our beers, talking through the loud music some, but often happily sitting in silence. Then, it's time for her to catch her bus.

Once I'm situated on my own bus, the man next to me slips into a VIP seat, giving me plenty of room to put my bags where he originally was sitting.

After a couple hours of shameless flirting online, I fall asleep.

The sun is up and the bus still moving when I wake.

My phone is low on power. There are electrical sockets on the bus, but I still don't have a converter.

A motorbike taxi driver spots me through the window of the bus as everyone starts to disembark. He keeps making eyes at me to see if I'm interested in a ride.

“No,” I sternly say into the window like a total idiot.

I should have ignored him instead of shaking my head and waiting for him to accept the fact that I don't want a taxi. I should be able to take a matatu from here to Kalifi.

Once on the sidewalk, another taxi driver stands in my way, preventing me from breaking free of the crowd of men. I push through him with my bag. Another driver tries a similar maneuver.

Frustrated, my heart quickens for a moment.

“I don't want to go with you,” I tell him, pushing through him, getting a round of laughs from his friends.

When you're carrying too much stuff and are stressed, it's hard to remember that they aren't being that serious. They might pull a serious face, but by the end of the interaction, it isn't that big of a deal.

Farther down, a man also waiting to jump into a minivan explains that I need to go to the Kilifi Station. He waves down a tuk-tuk, which is a darling, dilapidated, three-wheeled bubble of a vehicle here in Kenya.

At the station, an old man in a kufi hat loads me on a bus.

Below, a boy's hands are clutching at some coins and bills as he attempts to make change for a slice of pizza that a woman in the seat ahead of me bought. The clear tub of pizza slices sits at his feet. There is an emotional desperation, perhaps malnutrition, in the way he clutches at the money.

After a couple of bites, the woman later hurls the piece of pizza out the window, nearly hitting a man selling sunglasses.

On the road, the outskirts of Mombasa give way to fields of sisal. The plant bases are stumpy, shin-high protrusions with frowns bursting from the top like dozens of green icicles. They are laid out in orderly rows, stretching into the distance row after row after row.

Magical Boabob trees dot the landscape, their bloated trunks and spindly branches creating iconic silhouettes against the blue sky.

Nervously, I watch us enter Kilifi County and then Kilifi District, fearful that I'll miss my stop. All the time, there is the looming dread of getting off the bus and making a scenes as I attempt to unwedge my bags from the where they are pressed up against the window.

At the Kilifi Town bus station, I relax. It's a big stop, I'm not the only one having to get off.

A tuk-tuk driver wants to charge me 200 Shilling to get to Distant Relatives, the eco lodge and backpackers that I'm booked into for 2,000 Shilling a night.

“What do you have?” he asks.

I show him 50 Shilling in change. I walk away when he turns down the offer of 100 Shilling, but I can't find another tuk-tuk, so I return with a big grin, giving him an agreed to 150 Shilling.

Bargaining is a game. It's a way of socializing. It can be fun. It doesn't have to be so serious, I think, smiling to myself.

After five months of bargaining about the fair of a bus that I took every day in Accra, Ghana because the driver never remembered me and only saw me as another white ATM, I developed a hatred for the process. Perhaps now, years later, my ability to enjoy such shenanigans has been replenished.

The driver drops me at the gates.

Wood chip paths weave through cultivated jungle garden, where bright fuchsia blossoms of bougainvillea burst overhead. The open-floor layout of the giant communal area is strewn with enormous floor cushions, doggy beds for mastiffs. Through the decorative iron gates in the Mediterranean arches at reception, it's possible so spot the vibrant blue waters of a pool glistening in the tropical sunlight.

The place is busting with travelers and smiling staff – it's a backpacker's paradise.

Welcome to paradise. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

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