Day 269: Calf takes Dice Man down
The arid landscape disappeared into fertile fields. Photos: 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.
THERE are miles of open fields that would feel like home if not for the mountain ridge running north along the horizon. And with the fields come sheep, goats and cows. And with the beasts come herders. And with the herders are the irresponsible few. And from one of them we find ourselves laying on the ground, motorcycle engine humming despite the knockoff.
But let's start in the morning, when it's still cold out.
It turns out there is a span of only a few hours of the day when, at this altitude, it is possible to sleep in a tent without a sleeping bag, blanket or sleeping mat. My jacket is spread on the floor of the orange shelter, my riding pants pulled up over my shorts, a shirt wrapped around my feet and a hoodie pulled over my head. The deep cold of the mountains overlooking a lake and valley easily penetrates the depth of my body. There is no sleeping in this cold.
One of several ants that has claimed the tent as home for the night crawls across my arm. Wack. It ceases to live. What warmth I'd captured by not moving is lost.
The large dome tent, strewn with my belongings starts to glow. It's getting light out. The sound of the zipper to the tent being undone is satisfying, it's a wonderful way to greet a new day, now only if I'd be doing so with some shut-eye in the bank.
The sun hasn't risen yet. It hides behind a ridge on the eastern side of the valley. A dark, pink and orange light fills the air above the rugged ridge. If you look hard enough, the lake appears to be only a shimmering cloud in the early morning sky, as the valley itself lays dormant in a dusky blue haze.
Standing there alone, looking out over the valley, I can hear some of the Dutch campers rustling about. I consider waiting for the meteorologist to wake up, to bask in her passion for weather, but the air is starting to warm.
The world is warm enough by 6:30am for me to fall asleep.
By 9:30, the sun is slow cooking one chubby American, me, in the mountains of Kenya. A slick layer of sweat is building up between my body and anything it touches. By 10:00, it's impossible to ignore.
It was a cold night in the camp. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Feeling surprisingly fresh, I break camp.
Eating a pair of fried eggs with my hands and sipping a cup of instant coffee made with the hot water out of a Thermos sitting on the wooden table next to me, I tap on the laptop.
The team at Lelin Camp for Overlanders is all smiles, as they were yesterday. The Dutch group in their enormous bus has moved on, seeking further African adventures elsewhere.
Near the circular, open-air kitchen, I find a couple members of staff holding a pair of chickens by the legs, plucking feathers out by the handful.
“How much do I owe you?” I ask.
It comes to 800 shilling: 700 for the site and 100 for breakfast.
“You know, as an American, I've never actually plucked a chicken before. It's weird, but it's just not something most of us have tried.”
“Come, try it,” one of the guys says, handing me the dead bird by its legs.
It looked cold, almost frozen hanging in the air, but it's warm in my hands.
“They come away very easy once you've put them in boiling water,” the man says, pulling away a handful of black feathers and throwing them into a bin.
I'd always imagined plucking feathers from a chicken was a fairly strenuous task, when I imagined such things at all. Effortlessly, I pull a fist-full of black, wet feathers comes off in my hand. It's kind of fun.
On Sundays Lelin Camp often fills up with local families, friends and even boyfriends and girlfriends as they come up to enjoy a meal and the view after church. In preparation, the staff are plucking ten chickens. I'm not through with my chicken by the time someone is back with my change.
The mountain roads give way to farm land; miles and miles of flat, recently harvested corn fields. One swath of a roadside field is painted in black. The fine ash is spread in a thin sheet over red soil. It's the first time I've seen proper soil since arriving in the Great Rift Valley. Poking through the soil, their beaks searching for food, are East African Balearic Cranes.
The pair of cranes captured me. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A pair of the cranes, their fine crests a golden, hay-color that matches the corn stalks further into the field, take to the air for a moment before landing back on the black soot. It seems that Africa is full of birds, trees and animals from my childhood. So many of the exotic creatures you couldn't fathom really wandered the earth. Off the bike, it's possible to walk through the charred field to hear the cranes' awkward calls to each other, warning that a muzungu is approaching.
Storm clouds darken the gray sky, forcing me to rush back to Rafiki. On the road, the clouds let loose a steady rain. Though passing through a village, I'm unable to find any cafe or restaurant that seems suitable to take cover in while waiting for the rain to past.
Drenched, I pull under a section of roofing that extends a meter or off a house. A couple guys are working on a pair of motorcycles, while a few more people wait with their bikes for the rain to stop.
I should have put my rain gear on as soon as I saw the storm coming, but I didn't.
After 15 minutes of silence, I start talking to one of the men, breaching the subject of the high-speed train being built by the Chinese from Nairobi to Mombasa.
“We don't like the Chinese,” he says. “They come with their own people. No work for us.”
The rains lightens up, then ceases.
Pulling off of the paved C51 Highway, Rafiki and I take to a wide, well-made dirt road: C50. I've been accidentally red lining the bike a lot, so getting off the pavement will help me slow my friend down and take a bit better care of the old girl.
Google Maps adjusts to my less-efficient route. We pass through more and more farm land. From time to time, we'll pass another vehicle coming from the other direction or a small group of women washing clothes out in a field, laying their colorful garments out on the grass to dry in the sun.
On a more narrow dirt road, with deeper ruts and a few potholes, I spot a woman herding four or five calves down the road. Usually, a few swift “thawks” of the switch, a thrown stone or even the threat of it from a herder is enough to prompt the animals to wander out of the way. However, the woman seems to think we'll be fine splitting the lane, though it's a one-lane road.
I slow to only a few kilometers an hour as I approach.
One of the calves bolts directly in front of Rafiki. Grabbing a handful of breaks and the clutch, Rafiki and I still bump into the calf, Rafiki's tire rubbing against it's hide. The calf bounces away as Rafiki and I go down in the wet dirt.
The motorcycle is still running; my left hand his holding the clutch in, keeping it from stalling.
I look up from the ground to see the woman passively staring at me, not moving away or coming close to help me get to my feet. She's standing their as if a move in either direction might imply guilt.
I give her a look to ask if the calf is okay. I can't afford injuring anybody's livestock. She doesn't respond. With one hand still holding the clutch, it's possible to get Rafiki back up on her wheels – one point for smaller bikes.
Not until Rafiki and I are bumping along does the woman move to gather her frightened calf, which is in the green grass below the slightly raised dirt path.
I can feel where I hit the ground with the palm of my hand, which is a bad sign. I should have tucked and rolled. Catching yourself on your hands like that is a great way to end up with a seriously injured wrist.
Back on pavement, Rafiki coughs and chugs as she runs out of gas. Reaching down, I flip the lever to her reserve tank and she regains her confidence.
The gas attendant at the next town is unable to understand either the words coming out of my mouth or me miming to fill the tank all the way up. Frustrated, I settle for him putting 500 Shillings in the tank.
Across the street is a restaurant. I've been searching for a place to eat for the better part of an hour.
There's all these small, road-side towns with a pub, pool hall, general store and so on, but no sign of a place to order food. I'm convinced that I'm not looking for the right thing. Going slower and slower through the towns, I try to peek past dimly-lit doorways to see if there are tables or plastic chairs in the establishments. However, the Traveller's Inn, across the street from the guy pumping gas, claims to have a restaurant.
“Sorry, it's not working now,” a young Kenyan man who follows me into the courtyard of the big cement buildings says.
“Is there anywhere to get food?” I ask.
This is a modest sized town, complete with a large food market, five or six liquor stores and so on.
“There's a restaurant down there, but I don't know if it's working.”
Past a couple gas pumps farther down the road, there's clean, pink carcasses hanging from hooks in a butcher's window. Out front, a wide-faced woman in an African patterned top and matching long skirt tends a grill from her stool.
“What are you looking for?” a tall, lanky Kenyan asks me as I get off the bike.
“Food. Do they have food here?”
“Yes, come in.”
They don't have any food inside. However, there's the meat on the grill.
“Do you like nyama choma?” He asks. “It's 20 bob a piece. Here, join me.”
Hard to find a better piece of meat for 20 Shilling. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A piece of liver has been diced up on one of the two worn wooden boards laying on the table. At the head of one board is a large mound of salt. At the head of the other is a smaller pile of crushed orange peppers.
Plumes of thick white smoke float up from the piles of meat on the grill. The woman attending to it laughs and gives me a huge smile. Quickly her hands pick up small pieces of hot meat, rolling them and flipping them on the grill. Another man, standing next to her helps turn the meat and organs that are becoming perfectly charred on their ragged edges.
More and more men gather around me. Robert, the man who I first met, introduces me to his brother-in-law and his friend. We talk about Trump for a moment.
The woman gives a big, heady laugh when I show her the picture I took of her slicing up meat. Suddenly, there's a crowd. I'm shaking a lot of hands. More and more pieces of meat are finding their way to the cutting board, where the men are plucking up the fatty pieces of flesh, pressing them into the salt or the crushed pepper then popping them into their mouths. I ordered a piece of meat for myself, but have become so distracted that it's served up to someone else.
A twenty Shilling coin hits the table with a thwack as someone pays his bill.
All the time, I keep glancing back at my bags to make sure nothing funny is happening.
After a brief, conservation that sounds like the man and I are reading from a text book, the woman jumps in.
“You went to school didn't you?” she teases the man.
“Yes, you,” she laughs, her beautiful teeth shinning in her big mouth.
A few of those listening laugh as well.
After taking a few requested portrait shots of people, I return to the grill for my piece of meat. The chili has enough bite to keep things interesting, but it's hard to beat salt and grilled meat.
One man, who kept trying to get me to buy him a piece joins me for the last few bits of my snack.
“How much?” I ask the woman, unsure how many pieces were put on my bill.
“Two pieces, 40 Shillings,” she says.
I pay my tab and climb back onto the motorcycle. Though I doubt I'll see any of them ever again, I've made a couple friends and even gotten a couple of the guys' numbers.
“Bye Isaac,” the woman says with another winning smile behind a waft of white smoke.
After a little confusion, I pull into Blue Onyx Resort, where Geoffrey is waiting for me in a sunken sala, a White Cap beer on the table next to him.
I'd hoped to have several options for Couch Surfing hosts, but most of those in Kitale, near the base of Mount Elgon, have been inactive for months and months. Geoffrey was one of two people who responded to my request for a place to crash. The other person, Gloria, is in Pennsylvanian right now.
Without options, the die remained at rest.
Trying to stop drinking and put the brakes on my sugar consumption, I settle for a Stoney ginger soda as Geoffrey insists on buying me a drink.
Geoffrey is a middle-aged man, with gray hair at his temples and in the bottom part of his finely trimmed goatee. Relaxed, he greets me with a big hand shake a couple shoulder hugs.
Settled into a seat, I turn the conversation toward his work. He has the air of a college professor as he talks about his project.
“We're in 18 countries now. I've gone to Lebanon, Tanzania and Uganda to set up the project,” he explains.
The toilets are sustainable waste-managment solutions that don't require a septic tank or sewage treatment plant. By only using a cup of water per person, which is for hand washing, the waste is separated into solid and liquid, with the solid being composted through an aerobic process that's enhanced by macro organism.
My worries that this was going to be another one of those experiences where I'm getting hustled for cash by the Kenyan Couch Surfing community, like my first night in the country, are flushed away.
Geoffrey has taken the money he saved when working in Lebanon and opened up a small pub and restaurant not too far from his house.
I follow Geoffrey's car back to his house. He slides a big metal gate open, I'm kind of surprised he doesn't have a guard to do it for him – that's how spoiled I became in Nairobi.
Inside, there are a number of small, single-storey duplexes with grass in between them. Driving over the grass and around back we get to his home.
A lacy fabric curtains hang on three sides of the walls of the tiny, sparsely furnished living room to hide the unbecoming yellow cement walls. A bare fluorescent bulb hangs from the water stained ceiling.
Geoffrey, who is also hosting a teacher for his learning center, gives me the extra bedroom. It sounds like the teacher will be on the couch in the living room for a couple of days. In the bedroom, there is no light bulb in the ceiling socket, but there's a mattress on the floor and enough room for me to carry my luggage in before it starts raining again.
“Hope this is okay,” he says.
“This is perfect! I was sleeping on the ground with no sleeping bag, no blanket and no pad last night, so this is perfect,” I say, truly grateful for his hospitality.
“Her is my wife. She is called Nancy,” Geoffrey say, introducing me to his young-faced wife. Tied to her back is his daughter, Eve. Their two and half year old son, Steveo, silently stares at me.
“He's afraid of you,” Nancy says. “You're the first muzungu he's seen.”
The power goes out. Geoffrey heads to town to buy a couple of candles. Nancy plops Steveo down next to me on the couch. His body is limp has he leans against me. He's a tiny boy, with a bit of an egg head and a pot belly. No amount of talking or prodding gets much of a reaction from him at all. It's only when Nancy speaks to him in Swahili that I'm reminded that he's conscious of what's going on around him.
Then Steveo discovers my Garmin fitness watch. Obsessively, he flips through the screens, his tiny fingers flicking and flicking.
Playing with my phone, I leave him be. I am only occasionally distracted by the watch vibrating has he holds down the button on the side. His curiosity hones in on green light below the watch, which helps monitor my heart rate. Silently, he tries to pry the watch away from my wrist to see what's going on with the green light.
Nancy comes out with slices of bread, butter and milk tea, chai. The word for tea in Swahili is the same as in various Indian languages, where it originates, as well as in Thailand.
Nancy bows her head and says a quick prayer.
Sipping the sweet tea, I play with my phone, while Nancy is in the other room preparing dinner.
“It's strange to see him with someone. Usually he just sits in that chair alone with Dorey or something,”
Geoffrey says when he returns.
Geoffrey sits down for a moment and then stands back up.
“A true African man doesn't help his wife,” he says to Nancy, as he walks into the kitchen to help her with something. “She's complaining because usually I help her. I can clean the house, wash dishes, cook, anything, but I'm different.”
After a candle-lit dinner of potato curry, rice and cabbage, the lights come on, then go back off. Geoffrey and I settle into a conversation.
It turns out neither Nancy nor Geoffrey have come from well-to-do families. Only three years ago, he was working nonstop for a tour company and making no money at all. He and Nancy were living in a sheet metal shack the size of the living room in Nairobi at that time.
“When it rained, the rain came in. We had to stand up and stand in one corner waiting for it to stop. Then we could flip the mattress and go back to bed,” Geoffrey explains.
It was about this time when he helped organize a tour through his company for a Couch Surfing friend. The tour went off without a hitch. The friend introduced him to the founder of Microflush Toilets. Since then, Geoffrey's delivered every time he's been asked to do something for the organization, and been ample rewarded.
“Steve knows that if he sends Geoffrey, there's nothing to worry about. It will be perfect,” Geoffrey says. “So what is this you said about magic?”
Ah, yes... so part of the teaser I send in my messages requesting a place to stay on Couch Surfing is mentioning that I do magic and offering to maybe show a host how to do a trick or two.
“If you're too tired, it's okay,” he says.
“No, it's fine. Let me just go get my things.”
Geoffrey is a perfect audience, at least when he's not distracted by his phone.
He smiles and laughs in disbelief as I make an entire deck of cards disappear. Then can't imagine how I manage to switch the signed card he's been holding in his hand with the card I signed and put in my own hand.
His delighted laugh, curiosity and smile are more magic then what I'm doing.
Nancy walks into the room, so I say I'll do one last trick for her.
“You do magic?” she asks.
“Tricks,” I say. In Africa, it's important to not pretend it's real magic. You have to work the crowd in a slightly different way. “Okay, so lets do this.”
I kneel down next to the table turning a single die so that the four is facing up. Then with a swift thwack, I crush the die into a single flat piece of plastic. I hand the flat die to Nancy.
She wants to know if I she can keep it, which she can't as I've only got that one. She also wants to know if I can restore it – I can't.
“It's like a crushed can of soda. Once it's crushed that much, there's nothing I can do.”
We were going to visit Geoffrey's pub tonight, but it's getting late and it's still raining. Instead, I crawl into bed, curling up on the thin-foam mattress on the floor, grateful to have a dry place to stay and some warm blankets to pull over my body.