Day 267: Dice Man, Rafiki back on the road
Feels so good to be back on the road. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
AFRICA is the sort of place where a herd of dusty-assed Zebra (same vowel sound as Debra #NoahTrevor) will unpretentiously appear along side the highway. There is no fan fair, no safari jeep rumbling through a stretch of savanna, just a herd of striped horses.
It's my first day on the road since arriving to Africa. The dice established a goal line.
Last night, with a giddy sensation tingling across my scalp beneath my bleach-blond hair, I jotted down the options as I prepared to start the African leg of this adventure: 1) Mountain lake near border of Ethiopia 2) Hell's Gate 3) Place with Bees 4) Random map drawn by dude at Karen Camp 5) Mount Elgon – recommended 30 seconds before making the list 6) Lake Victoria 7) Nanyuki 8) Baringo.
CHECK OUT THE ROLL HERE:
In the morning, I enjoy a few extra minutes in the soft guest bed of Michael and Amy's house before I start carrying luggage downstairs and strapping it onto the bike.
Michael is out of town for an unexpected meeting. Amy walks in the front door carrying their baby, Hank, as I come down the steps with my second load of gear – tent, drone and tank bag.
I join Hank on the ground, while chatting with Amy. The little fella laughs, then comes crawling my way, slapping the wooden floor with his chubby hands. Smiling with his father's blue eyes, he charges into me, much like a goat, then flops down, burying his mouth around my leg. Even though he has four little teeth, he doesn't bite most of the time, but rather seems to be measuring up the entire world one mouth full at a time. Happily, he finds my bungee cords. He's a wire man, which makes a bungee a perfect, safe toy for him.
“The bike's already fallen over once,” I tell Amy. An over-loaded dirt bike tire is propping my girl up, keeping her from toppling over again.
“Aren't you worried about that when you're driving?”
“No, it'll be fine when it's moving. I had a similar problem with my bike in Thailand, the kickstand is just too short for the load it's carry.”
The minutes slip by. Soon, it's time for Amy to head to her 9am class and me to get back to leaving.
One last glass of free water and a bathroom break before I saddle up.
I named the troublesome Yamaha DT175 Rafiki, which translates as “friend” in Swahili. With her between my legs and my entire life packed up into a pair of custom-made khaki panniers strapped to each side of her, it's time to hit the road.
Rafiki roars to life, the two stroke engine screams out as I give her a little extra gas to warm up. Big clouds of blue smoke pour of the tail pipe, a result of the gas-oil mixture. It shouldn't be so rich once she's warm and we're moving at a descent click.
Up the single cement road of the gated neighborhood populated solely by US Embassy staff, family and their help, I stop at a thick metal arm. Abraham, one of five or six guards who works for KK Security at the neighborhood, is already unlocking the padlock to the metal arm.
“You look like you're going for a long time,” he says.
“Yes, about four months and then I'll be back.”
The guards are wonderful, always easy and kind when dealing with me. Often, because Rafiki is so loud, they'll already have the front gate unlocked by the time I arrive.
Once I pass under the arm, he locks it behind me, then goes around to unlock the front gate.
It's always a strange feeling to drive away from somewhere with everything you own. In some ways, it's a thrilling sort of freedom. In other ways, it's something else. Something I can never put my finger on exactly.
Google Maps calls out directions as Rafiki and I get going. We pass by the Kibera slum, then merge onto the highway A104 toward Nakuru.
We're cruising. I probably should have topped up the gas tank and even picked up some spare spark plugs, as Yuri advised. However, the Yamaha shop is in the other direction and this tiger is ready to roam Africa – or at least Kenya.
We're gaining altitude. The scrub lands and outer-cityscape gives way to pine forest; thick groves with trees more than 10-meters tall. I'd never imagined there are pines in Kenya, but there's ignorance for you.
The sun fails to burn off a lingering morning chill in the air. The coolness sinks through my ridding jacket, causing my chest to tighten. Sleeping in a tent tonight is going to be miserable.
As if putting a roof over my head for nearly three weeks wasn't enough, Michael loaned me one of their tents so I can save money on accommodation. I'll still have to stay in camps for security reasons – nobody wants to wake up to a missing motorcycle or a hungry lion – but it's still cheaper than paying for a room. The only issue is that I don't have a pad or even a sleeping bag. I did borrow a pillow case from Amy to use as a stuff sack for clothes, also known as a pillow, but that's not going to do much in a battle against the cold.
There, spread out in front of us, in the sort of vastness that Gothic architects couldn't fathom, yet strove for in their imperfect attempts to capture the greatness of god, is the Great Rift Valley.
It looks like the set for western cowboys and Indians miniatures spread out across some enormous table in the basement of an university professor. Along the ridge crop up eight or nine little shacks, labeled cursio shops. The label seems to be a through back to Cabinets of Curiosity. However, these don't house strange, eclectic displays from around the world, they are simply souvenir shops boasting checkered Maasai shuka cloth, as well as sheep hides and sheep-skin hats. The hats, which would look more at home in Russia, have dotted the roadside long before we reached the Great Rift Valley viewpoint. They are plopped onto the ends of chopped up bushes, looking like strange, over-sized flowers set to seed.
This spot, with shops named after animals, Leopard, Rhino and so on, also boasts a few bathrooms and “free” view points.
An old, withered man with stained teeth approaches me in a dinner jacket two sizes too big for him. He offers a welcoming smile. His name is Peter.
Peter wants me to buy a hat.
Peter pulls one down over his head, the round cap sinking over his ears. Though I have no interest in buying a hat, I also try one on.
Peter very much wanted me to buy a hat. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“I'll give you a good price, 1,200 shilling,” he says. The prices immediately drops to 1,100 shilling.
By the time I'm climbing onto Rafiki, Peter's dropped the price to 500 shilling. At that price, I should probably roll for it. But what the hell am I going to do with such a hat?
“What about a little [money] for a soda?” he asks.
“Is there somewhere we can get sodas?”
People asking for money or for a little gift, even total strangers is so common in Kenya, at least when they see that you're white. I'd sit down with Peter and have a couple sodas or even a beer, share a moment, but I'm not giving him cash.
“No, there isn't,” he says, looking around as if to be sure. There's a touch of desperation in his eyes at this point. “Just for a soda. You like pictures and I took pictures with you. I like soda.”
“Sorry, if there was some place we could go together...”
“When will you come back? Come back and I'll give you a good price, because you're a friend now.”.
“I'll be back in a couple of weeks, I think.”
Back on the road, down into the Great Rift Valley, the zebras appear. First one herd, then another and another. Some are too small to make out clearly, while others are as close to the road as most of the goats. Distracted by workers wearing yellow vests as they cut grass and weeds, I nearly slide out of my saddle as I pass a pair of long-faced baboons standing next to the road – hitchhikers I wouldn't pick up for a 1,000 dollars. A third Baboon is climbing over a wire fence that runs parallel to the road.
Passing through Gilgil, which looks like nothing more than a junction town along the highway, I pull off at Trends Grill and Butchery. The white building has a roughly spray painted sign on the front that says: welcome. Hanging in the window are a couple of carcasses – of what, I'm not sure. Maybe lamb and what's left of a pig.
Around back, between the butchery and an attached beer garden, I find a couple of waitress tending hot coals. After some confusion, I order 1/4kg of pork with ugali for 150 shilling – that's a dollar fifty.
After stripping off layers of armor, I settle into a chair with a copy of Through The Looking Glass, and find myself desperately wishing I had better reading material. Reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland prior to this book was fun, but now I need something I can sink my teeth into. I need books about Africa. The 25 minutes the cook said it would take to prepare the pork pass in the appropriately measured 25 minutes. Yet the pork does not come.
At the 50-minute mark, I stand to see what's taking so long. Not until I get up for the third time to see why it's taken well over an hour to make the dish does it arrive.
I pull off a piece of ugali, roll it into a ball with my fingers, then press it down into the pork dish, squeezing it around a fatty, soft piece of flesh smeared with a homemade tomato sauce. Gnawing on a bit of bone between bites of ugali, I worry what people will think of me if I don't tear every piece of meat free from the tiny t-bone. Eventually, giving up on the bone, leaving more meat then is respectable.
The pork ended up being worth the long wait. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Before taking off, I pour 500ml of 2T oil into the tank.
Uninterested in Alice's latest adventure, I'd spent a great deal of time on my phone, mostly chatting with Michale, who was in a meeting and starving. It turns out there are several interesting things about little Gilgil.
The little town is home to the Kariandusi Prehistoric Site, which is African Early Stone Age site dating to approximately 1 million years ago. Dr Louis Leakey, a renowned paleontologist at the turn of the century, believed it was a hand-axe factory site of the Acheulian period.
It is also home of Lake Elmenteita, which attracts flamingos to the region. Unfortunately, since tilapia were introduced into the lake in 1962, the local population of the iconic birds has dwindled. More than a million birds that formerly bred at Elmenteita are now allegedly roosting in Lake Natron.
I consider bring the die into action, but decided that pre-historic archaeological sites of this nature aren't what gets my engines going. Flamingos on the other hand... Flamingos turn me pink with passion. Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I still rather my luck with them.
I spot Lake Elmenteita in the distance, as the road bends down into a dust basin. It's scrub land blanketing hills and valleys for as far as the eye can see, only a a fringe of vegetation on the lake's edge is a healthy green.
Off the slope, I cut down a dirt path and past a few small shops with painted signs. The road is westbound, which means it should eventually meet the lake. It turns into a wide-dusty path. It branches. There are two rock markings by the path-side, both painted with the names of camps.
In the distance, a dirt devil siphons dust off the barren landscape up into the blue sky. The amount of silt it captures waxes and wanes as it crosses sections of the dusty road.
I consider chasing it down. What would a drone video of one look like? What's the difference between this harmless little devil and a deadly tornado?
Following an unmarked path across the desert landscape, I'm nearly at the gate of a camp before I realize it.
Turning around, I find another path. Though it's possible to drive anywhere in this flat, empty landscape, there are some truck tracks and goat paths to which I find myself sticking. It's tempting to call the whatever covers the path sand, but it's in fact far too fine-grained for sand. It's dust, thick layers of the finest white dust which long-thorned acacia brambles have managed to find root. There's a scraping sound of thorns dragging along the canvas panniers as the path narrows.
I pause above a small drop off. Fairly sure I'll be able to make it back up, Rafiki and I dip down and head into the thin acacia forest. Two Maasia men sit in the shade among a flock of goats who are happily chewing the green grass along the lake's edge.
“Hot spring?” the younger of the two men calls out to me as park the bike next to them. He's pointing farther down the path.
“No, flamingos. Birds,” I say, pointing to the lake.
I'm either incredibly lucky or there are still a lot of flamingos at this lake. Out in front of me, among the tall grass are several flocks of the hooked necked birds. Slowly, they step through the water searching for food. A flock of sandpipers stand on the far side of a small inlet of the lake. A few storks have also found themselves knee deep in water.
It's easy to see how Lewis Carroll's imagination turned the strange birds into croquet mallets. Though famous for their pink pigment, these flamingos are mostly white, or perhaps the palest of of pinks. It's only as one flock is frightened into the air, their wings spreading wide, that the deep pink along their spines, which leaking out toward their wings like watercolors, is visible. Seen from above, it's a view straight out of childhood. Something National Geographic or Nova produced in the 90s.
Flamingos in Lake Elmenteita. Video/Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The older Maasai man, wearing a worn, gray jacket and brown pants, makes a few clicking sounds when I wave him over to see the drone footage. It's hard to know if he approves or disapproves of the device.
He says something about mzungu – white person – though I don't speak enough Swahili to catch it. The younger man has long gone.
Worried about being caught with the drone and extorted out of cash I don't have, I quickly finish packing it back up.
Rafiki and I take off, back up the dusty road, away from the shallow lakefront.
Back on the main road, I'm momentarily lost in Nakuru. I'm forced to loop back around to find B4. Ironically, I'd just been thinking how hard it is to get lost in Kenya since there are so few roads.
One the side Highway B4, there are about five fruit and vegetable stands. They have avocados. They have Kenyan avocados, which are about the size of a softball and custardy as a creme brulee.
I bag three avocados and two bananas for 110 shilling, then knock my helmet off of the bike climbing back onto her. The helmet clatters to the ground, a screw breaking loose and one side of the visor coming free.
“Sorry,” a Kenya says as he picks it up. Kenyans apologize for more things that aren't their fault than Canadians.
A portly man wearing a suit stops next to me.
“Where are you from?”
It turns out his son has a scholarship to a US university in Tennessee for a doctoral computer science program.
It's always a bit awkward figuring out how to exit these conversations, as the man, like most Kenyans seems more than pleased to just stand here and chat with me until the sun goes down.
“I best get going,” I say.
He nods and then slaps hands with one of the vendors, saying hello to the middle-aged woman.
I slow Rafiki down to thump over a pair of enormous speed bumps in one small town farther down the road. Many people's eyes follow me. Kenyans don't know what to think of the little fox – or tiger or ginger cat – ears on the helmet. A young woman gives a beaming smile. However, the faces of most seem frozen in confusion, looking so serious that it seems like the ears anger them.
It's not that Kenyans can't do weird. They are weird in their own right. Tell me where outside of Africa you can find a Gaddfi Matutu or a bus prainted as a speeding shrine to 2Pac. Matutu, often functioning as mobile party buses, are part of the public transport system.
However, I'm the only tiger in Africa. I probably wouldn't get a second look if I was just another white guy on a motorcycle. Sure, a kid or two would put their hand to their mouth in hopes that I'd give them money, but I wouldn't be getting this many strange looks.
The goal is to get off the road by 3pm. Though having passed numerous lodges and camps in Nakuru, at about that time, the decision to press on means there's no chance I'll be off by then.
On the side of the road, I drop the die. If it's an even, I turn back to the small village I just passed through and get a cup of tea with the locals. I'd spotted a young woman pouring an old man a cup of milk chai in the spec of a town where honey vendors stands are setup on each side of the highway.
The die turns the idea down.
Rafiki's engine is still running. We're sitting opposite the Rachemo Honey Marketing Co-Operative Society Ltd, a community honey collection and processing center. There's something romantic to the building's isolation, situated 200 meters out of town. Set about ten meters back from the road, the small rectangular building is painted a dusty yellow, with blue lettering, its back presses into a rocky cliff, a single acacia tree stands on the rocky ground in front of it. It's a cooperative for selling acacia honey.
All the commerce in the dusty little village seems to focus on acacia honey. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Why does the die have to shoot down ideas like checking out this village? Wouldn't it be more fun to do things? Though I know it's not off-limits by the law of the die to check out the tiny little building, it seems against the die's general flow for the day. So, Rafiki and I return to the road.
Up in the trees on this side of the bramble, brush fences that line the road are short sections of logs, maybe a meter long. All of them are about the same thickness and have been secured in place with wire and rope. They are man-made bee hives.
My ass is numb from the constant vibrations of Rafiki's mostly off-road tires on the smooth cement of the highway. I've been watching my front tire wobble all day. I can't tell if it's not spinning true or if it's the tread on it that causes everything to bounce around so much.
A general tiredness sets in. I scan the ragged, thorny landscape for somewhere to hole up for the night. The B4 is a well-paved, flat, two-lane highway. There's hardly any traffic on it.
I start wondering how much fuel is left in the tank.
A big sign claims there's accommodation and camping up ahead. Staff, or at least people I presume are staff, ignore me as I wander into the large, empty building indicated by the sign.
“Do you have camping?” I ask.
The young woman I'm addressing doesn't seem to know the word “camping”.
I try several more times.
“A place to sleep?”
“Lodging,” she says, her eyes getting wide, as if I'm an idiot for not phrased the question this way.
“Sure, how much?”
The rooms start at 1,000 Shilling, which given that the campsite I had originally thought I'd stay at would be 700 Shilling, isn't such a bad price. However, this rubs me all wrong.
I step out and get back onto the bike. Carefully, I kick start the bike, balancing a single banana and two huge avocados in my lap. Earlier, one avocado and one banana broke free and were used as paint on the black road,
“Fuck,” I mutter, pulling a Lance Armstrong and loosing one of my avocados. I briefly consider not even turning back for it, but change my mind.
That was the problem with buying the fruit in the first place, I had no where to keep it. The ripped black plastic bag there were given to me in is no use at this point.
Through the aptly named Honey Junction, a small t-junction lined with roughly crafted shelves stacked with bottles of honey, it feels as if the sun will be setting at any moment. Though still relatively high in the sky, the cloud cover and the knowledge that once the sun starts going down at the equator it goes fast, I'm getting a little nervous. I don't want to be caught driving at night on my first day back on the road.
Too tired to bother with a photo shoot, I pass by a pair of signs marking the equator. Seconds ago I was in the Southern Hemisphere. Now, I'm in the Northern Hemisphere.
There's just a poorly written number on the green gate of the guesthouse. I call the number. Nobody answers. Maybe it's still under construction.
I drive off, back on the road, I see a woman standing at the gate. Too late, I think.
The next hotel down – established by some big shot police officer according to the sign out front – is outrageously expensive, starting at 3,500 shilling per night.
I have a missed call.
It's the woman at the gate.
I eat a banana and ask her how much for a room.
“500 shilling,” she says.
“I'll be right there.”
A young man opens a small door in the gate when I arrive. He stands there chatting with me. Then, there's silence.
“Can I bring the bike in?” I say, prompting him into action.
The woman appears. She's a younger woman, maybe my age, with a big belly under a thin white shirt. She opens the main gate and allows me in.
She seems shell-shocked.
“Where can I park my bike?” I ask in the resounding silence.
Bashfully, she helps me settle in. A pile of wood in the corner of the walled in courtyard is a sure sign that the place is still under construction or recently finished. Perhaps I'm her first customer, or at least her first white customer.
“It's a beautiful place,” she says.
I agree, even if it isn't the most charming location.
This exhausted, anywhere with a bed and a shower is beautiful to me.
It feels good to get off the motorcycle for the day. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
She shows me into a small, cement room with a single bed covered with a leopard patterned blanket. The room has not been decorated, but there is a pink mosquito net and an electrical socket. I have everything I need.
With a bit more prompting, I manage to get the obvious out of the woman with regards to where to get food. Either at the junction or in town, where the bigger hotel is located.
Having shed most of my gear, it feels extraordinary to be on the bike. Rafiki and I both feel a bit more free now. We bump into town and then out of it thirty seconds later. It is a one donkey town if I ever saw one.
Cruising in the golden light of the setting sun, I can't but hope that we cross paths with some African wildlife. Nothing appears, and the sun is getting lower, so we turn back. Off the main road, there is a short road with shop houses. Perhaps 24 establishments all together. Little, worn-wood signs that have all been hand painted by the same steady fingers hang in front of each place, marking them a pool hall, salon, butcher, and so on. Their are a couple marked hotel, though it's hard to imagine where a person would sleep in the small wooden buildings. Everyone's eyes follow Rafiki and the man in the tiger ears as we loudly putt through town – two-strokes just aren't quiet bikes. Their heads slowly turn as they silently watch. No need to ask whether or not I'm from around these parts, it's clear that I'm not.
The closest thing to a restaurant appears to be a pub. However, I decided to check the junction for a cafe or restaurant first – the die just said I had to look in town first. The junction offers even less options. I return to the pub, ramping Rafiki up onto the sidewalk to park her.
A thick slitted curtain hangs across the gloomy doorway, providing a little privacy for the single man hunkered over a tall glass of whiskey at the narrow bar. On the other side of the chicken-wire fence running from the bar to the ceiling stands the bartender and a couple shelves of booze.
“Do you serve food?” I ask.
She doesn't understand. If English wasn't an official language in Kenya, I'd feel more like an ass for jumping in with English every time, but it is an official language. Either way, I'm sure my accent and pronunciation doesn't help.
After several more attempts, with me just saying the word food over and over again, miming a bowl of soup and spoon as I do so, the young man jumps in.
He takes me next door to a three-story wood and cement hotel. The walls of the entrance are barren, a few plastic chairs and plastic tables are spread out in the florescent light.
I re-park the bike so I can keep an eye on it while I eat.
There's only one option for food sukuma, shredded kale, and ugali. The waiter brings out a reasonable portion of each, which should cost maybe 20 shilling for a Kenyan, 50 shilling for a foreigner. However, the man mumbles something about it being 100 shilling. It's hard to believe, as there's not a scrap of meet or an egg on the plate.
“How much did you say?”
“100 shilling,” he says again, his voice struggling with the lie.
It's too expensive, but so what? We're talking about a 50 cent difference. I'm sure the extra cash will do him more good than myself. I pay the man his money with a smile, pick up a couple bananas and a bottle of water from across the road and return to my room.
It's 7:30pm. There's plenty of time to get some work done, but a deep exhaustion has seeped into my body.