The Bus to Mombassa
17.12.2006 - 17.12.2006
I woke up with a fever, nausea and diarrhea and the last thing I wanted to do was take a long distance bus across a border.
Dar es Salaam and the central parts of Tanzania had flooded overnight. Our balcony was a swimming pool and my towel was drowning in it. I was not a happy puppy!
I got a taxi in the pouring rain to the Scandinavian Express bus. I had been warned by several people not to use any other bus company. So I paid 20 pin (TSh 20 000) for the expensive ticket.
I had pre-booked my seat, right up front behind the driver. At first I was sat next to an Asian businessman, but he was soon replaced by ‘Islamic Jihad’.
I had seen this lanky Arab nervously puffing on a cigarette before boarding the bus. He was carrying nothing except his passport and a book called ‘Divine Justice’
I grew more paranoid as the trip progressed, as we hadn’t said a word to each other and he was sweating profusely while studying his book and continuously fiddling with two mobile phones, sending SMS’s and regularly swapping sim cards.
I dozed off and woke from a nightmare in which I was Harrison Ford, saving the day. I had grabbed ‘the terrorist’s’ phone and threw it out the window before he could hit the send button, which would have triggered the ‘bomb’. I figured he had sat in front for easy access and wasn’t prepared to give up his life, yet.
We sailed through both the Tanzanian and Kenyan border posts at Lunga Lunga.
The Arab had a name.
While completing our departure and arrival cards, I peeked over and sneakily copied down the Arabs’ name: Mohammedali Hassenali Merali. He was a Kenyan citizen.
He overheard me almost rip-off a money changer (I owed them for their previous screwing-me-over) by confusing them with Rand/Zambian Kwacha/Tanzanian Schillings and then asked me in a posh English accent “How much was he going to give you for your Rand?” I was shocked!
We got chatting and I soon found out his life story, including the state of Kenya’s roads. They are affectionately known as the 8th wonder of the world because goods and humans still manage to get from A to B, even when axles snap in the huge potholes and bridges disappear with the rain.
MHM (the Arab) was educated in England (Like most wealthy Kenyans) and studied Aeronautical Engineering. He decided not to pursue a career in the sky and opted to ‘devote his life to Allah’
On the one hand I was angry with myself for judging and assuming MHM was a terrorist, as I get extremely annoyed with the Americans and British when they do the same thing and arrest them (the Arabs) at airports and even schools!
On the other hand, I had sufficient evidence to be suspicious, especially when I calculated that his studies coincided with the 9/11 tragedy. I was completely freaked out after I was awoken by machine-gun fire. I was having another nightmare, this one ending in gunfire. It was subliminal, as the gunfire was actually MHM’s ring tone on his phone!
Anyhow, MHM turned out to be a gentleman of note, offering to show me around Mombassa and organizing us a taxi.
I say us, because a frantic America lady had attached herself to me at the border, asking if she could stay in the same hotel I was staying in. She later admitted that it was much easier (and safer) to just trust other people’s planning, no guide book required, no stress, Hakuna Matata.
Jennifer was her name and she was a 45 year old Hollywood Associate Producer. It was like traveling with a walking, talking Hello or People magazine. She knew who was fucking who, their real names, telephone numbers and star signs! She told me all about Paparazzi and we discussed it as a possible career opportunity for me, NOT!
We spent the night at the New Peoples Hotel in the dingiest part of Mombassa Island. Not only was it dirt cheap (and surprisingly not dirty), it was above the bus company offices. We had to jump on a 05:00 bus to Lamu the next morning and opted for convenience over luxury. I left Jenn in the taxi while I took a squizz at the room, it was a barebones, flea-ridden, tiny room that you couldn’t swing a cat in. At $6 for both of us we couldn’t complain and moved right in. Well not exactly, we had to wait a few minutes before entering the hotel, to enjoy the street fight taking place that was blocking our entrance. Once inside the hotel, I realized it was mostly used as a ‘brothel-quick-fuck-spot’. As I climbed the stairs there were warnings to the guests, painted with a finger in red:
“No Alcohol or Prostitutes allowed”, and
“No smoking Bhangi or chewing of Miraa”.
I was safe, I hadn’t had a drink in over a year, Jenn was not a Prostitute (as far as I knew at the time) and I didn’t know what Bhangi or Miraa was.
I soon found out that Bhangi was the local name for Cannabis/Marijuana and Miraa was a bunch of green fleshy twigs, sold from kiosks and every street corner – including outside our hotel.
I vaguely remembered seeing a guy chewing twigs in a movie which was set in London. The name escapes me but it was about the illegal organ trade and this African guy (Somali/Ethiopian I think) was working 23 hours a day as a taxi driver and hotel concierge, trying to make ends meet, and as a result he had to chew the Miraa to stay awake.
Miraa is also known as Khat, the product of an evergreen tree native to East Africa, Afghanistan and Yemen. Chewing the small twigs and leaves has become an increasingly popular pastime in Kenya, but not nearly as important as in Somalia, where the drug is ingrained in the culture. Some of the best Miraa in the world is grown around Meru, at the foot of Mount Kenya, and it’s a whopping $250 million export industry. Since Miraa’s potency is diminished 48 hours after picking, massively over laden trucks race nightly to Wilson Airport in Nairobi, for the morning flight to Mogadishu to satiate the Somali’s appetite for the drug. The locals in Mombassa tried to sell me a ‘giza’ which is the size of three ‘kilos’. It costs KSh 300 (about $4). They say “when you chew Miraa, you’ll make many plans” Aggressive behavior, nightmares and hallucinations are common side effects, as well as reduced appetite, constipation and brown teeth. Even less pleasant are claims of Miraa causing spermatorhea, an abnormal leakage of sperm (not from a wet dream), which then leads to infertility. While drinking Chai (tea) on the sidewalk, I interviewed a dozen locals on the street, all happily chewing away and asked them why it is they munched the stuff. The only answer I could get were “Everyone does it”, “it’s cool”, “I don’t get hungry”, “Hakuna Matata”, or just a blank stare. Most of them didn’t know why they did it!
The sleep was great, I got no flea bites, and we were awakened at 04:00 by the standard ‘call to prayer’ from a mosque across the road!