Another hectic bus journey
18.12.2006 - 18.12.2006
We woke up at 05:00 and ran down to the office to pay for our bus tickets. The early bus had already left, so we had some time to kill before the next one left. I didn’t have any Kenyan Shillings and Jenn had paid for the hotel and bus, so we went in search for an ATM which would hopefully accept my VISA Electron debit card.
Two ATM’s later I still had no money, and my regular bout of morning sickness (like clockwork) came on, just before we had to board the bus. I did my usual ‘fake vomit three times’ routine and then jumped on the Falcon Bus.
It’s supposed to be a six hour journey, getting us to Lamu by midday, but it ended up taking 13!
The bus was a death-trap, despite its shiny outwards appearance. All the busses were emblazoned from top to bottom in full Manchester United and Liverpool regalia.
The Falcon bus had a massive “you’ll never walk alone” slogan on the front and rear.
Later I thought a more appropriate slogan would have been “you’ll never walk again!”
The first section of the journey was uneventful, unless you count the stop where burnt corn-on-the-cob and rotten meat skewers were shoved six feet up through my window and literally into my mouth. I bought some boiled eggs instead, having already had the pleasure of bush-meat-sickness and unpalatable tasteless rubbery corn. The floor ended up as usual - a medley of egg shells, corn cobs, toothpicks, bottles and greasy newspapers. They wrap all food in newspaper, except for the very moist stuff, which comes in a plastic bag.
The bus stopped in Malindi so that the passengers could empty and then refill their bladders and bowels, while I took the opportunity to get some money, as there were no banks on Lamu, according to the trustworthy Lonely Planet. I was proud of myself for finding a bank, drawing money and buying a ‘line’ (a pay as you go SIM card), all in under 17 minutes, which included a kilometer sprint and two frantic Tuc-Tuc rides. My new Celtel number works in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, without the need to pay any roaming fees! I immediately understood why their slogan was “making life better”. The bus was driving like the one in the movie Speed (with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves), except that it didn’t have a bomb on it (as far as I knew), it was not shiny and new, and the road resembled the surface of the moon, or more accurately, a moldy strip of Emmenthaler cheese that was melting in the sun!
Inevitably, the shit hit the fan, and we were forced to stop in a little town called Garsen, to repair a burst tire. Garsen is a frontier town, filled with Somali refugees. Surrounding Garsen live hundreds of AK47-wielding bandits, notorious for ambushing vehicles and killing their occupants after stripping them of their belongings.
I strolled around town with the aim of getting lost and maybe taking some good portrait shots. I did both.
Having had enough of the destitute Somali’s begging for money, I was lured into the cool shade of a local canteen.
They brought me a plate full of food and gestured that I wash my hands. I was so starving that I happily tucked into the grey rubbery flesh garnishing my Ugali (maize meal). I think it was tripe/stomach/offal (the cheap inside bits of a goat or cow that few Mzungus eat). It was delicious and cost all of KSh 50 (under $1). I paid them KSh 20 in cash and a KSh 40 Celtel voucher – they were jumping up and down with joy!
After my meal I saw the source of that grey rubbery flesh, hanging from a rafter in the sun, the flies having the time of their lives all over it! I didn’t know that offal/tripe could taste that good, but seeing it in that state negated my culinary experience.
After Garsen, an AK47-wielding Ascari (security guard or soldier) hopped aboard the bus. This was a legal requirement and no vehicle was permitted to continue without one. Hundreds of soldiers were based in a small village, taking turns to escort the vehicles through the 50km of ‘bandit territory’. At the end of the road, the Ascari would hop into one of the returning vehicles. No attacks had happened in years, but the government wasn’t prepared to risk another tourist tragedy.
There were serious floods in the area three weeks before, and scores of shimmering silver makeshift tents had been erected (donated by the UN) on the verges of the road that were on high ground. The Japanese Red Cross was around, dealing with the aftermath of the flood which displaced thousands of already desperate refugees.
As I write this, I realize that they are probably better off there than in Somalia, as ‘Dubya’ Bush, the Shmuck, decided to go back and take care of unfinished business by bombing the shit out of (terrorizing) yet another defenseless nation.
The heavens opened up and bouts of rain came down in buckets. My window was the only one on the bus that couldn’t close. The passengers behind me, who were getting soaked, couldn’t understand why I refused to close it. The reality was quite simple, there was no window at all. So I got properly soaked and enjoyed every refreshing minute of it. They told me the bus was a direct six hour service to Lamu, without picking up or dropping off any passengers. They lied.
Eight hours after leaving Mombassa the bus was still full. Everyone was seated by now, even after more than 50 people had got on and off. I was pretty sure that all the revenue generated was going directly into the drivers’ deep pockets.
Jenn was terrified, especially after I shared the whole ‘MHM Islamic Jihad’ episode and told her the history about the bandits etc. She later refused to take the bus back to Mombassa and opted to fly from Lamu directly to Nairobi.
Eventually we arrived at the ferry terminal in one piece. I wasn’t expecting to see a giant piece of concrete to which several small fishing dhows were attached. I asked Jenn “Where’s the ferry?” All the ‘captains’ started tugging at our luggage, in order to get our business. We were ushered into a small boat which ferried us, and about 40 other weary passengers, down the channel. The dhow took 30 diesel-spluttering minutes to reach Lamu.
While we were stuck in Garsen, I had sent an SMS to Sarah, the American girl whose number I got from the two other yanks in a Dar es Salaam internet café. She sent back messages in Swahili saying that she was working, but had arranged for Mohammed to pick us up from the ferry and take us to our accommodation! We were four hours late and trusty Mohammed was still waiting. I felt so special when I spotted the short innocent man giving me a look of “I know who you are and I’m here to help you” (and for a change not take advantage of you). He lead us through a maze of streets and old buildings that were way more spectacular than Zanzibar. We stayed at Milimani, the Swahili word for hill. It was a huge four story house on top of the hill, with 360 degree views of Lamu and surrounds. The house was part of a cultural exchange program. American students lived with local families and learnt about ancient Swahili customs. Lamu was the quintessential model village.