I woke up at 6:30 in the morning at Kolping House to early morning light and the sound of birds chirping. A few minutes later, I could hear the unlocking of doors and breakfast preparations, just as I had expected. I brushed my teeth, showered, put on my clothes, and packed my bags. Phyllis had arranged for a taxi driver to pick me up at 7:30 to take me downtown to the Easy Coach terminal. I was headed to Western Kenya because it was one step closer to my job in Kakamega, one and a half hours north of Kisumu at the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Department of Optometry and Vision Science.
I walked to the dining room and there were eight American students at a long table, all white. At the smaller table there were four students, all black. I went to the a table with all of the breakfast foods, poured a bowl of corn flakes, put some mango and papaya on a plate, and made some instant coffee. I sat down at an empty space with the black students. Three were from America and we talked about their two week Kenya trip. They would be leaving soon for Nakuru, a well-known National Park. The other student was Kenyan. I mentioned I was going to move to Kakamega, and was leaving for Kisumu in a half hour. She said that if I go to Kakamega National Forest I should beware of the baboons. “Actually,” she said, “I think they are mostly hard on women. You might be okay.” I said, “I think there is another cool spot north of Kakamega called the Eldoret National Forest.” “That is nice and I have been there,” she said, “They have good clubs and I love to party.” I mentioned the Salif Keita concert at Bomas of Kenya. “I was there!” she said, “And I danced all night.”
Phyllis, the assistant to the manager, walked by. “I need to leave soon, and thank you for your work over the last few days,” I said. “You are welcome,” she replied. “I just wanted to mention something. Last night we were locked in. I tried to get out but could not. For safety’s sake, you might want to make sure your guests can get out at night.” “I am sorry,” she said. “You don’t need to be sorry,” I said, “In fact, you were not even here so it could not be your fault, I just want you to know for the future.” “By the way, your taxi is here,” she said. “Oh, great, I will grab my things. Is my laundry ready that I gave you yesterday? And I need to pay for that. How much is it?” I asked. “250 Kenyan Shillings,” she replied, “But it is still not ready. It is hanging on the line and not yet dry. I have not had the chance to iron it.” I got out my wallet and found 250 Kenyan Shillings, and handed it to her. “Then could you please put it in a plastic bag?” I asked. “It is 7:25 and I must go soon.”
Phyllis met me at the taxi with a doubled plastic bag full of pants, a couple shirts, underwear, and socks. I felt inside the bags. They were damp but not too bad, and folded nicely. “Thank you, Phyllis. I appreciate it,” I said. “No problem,” she replied, “Safe journey.” I had a space prepared in my day pack for the washed clothes. I said to the taxi driver, “How much to go to the Easy Coach station downtown?” “700 Kenyan Shillings ($7 US),” he replied. It seemed fair enough, perhaps a tad expensive relatively speaking, but I was not in the mood for negotiating. It was rush hour on a Tuesday morning after all. We loaded my larger backpack with my hiking gear into the trunk, followed by a brown carry on roller suitcase with my optometry instruments, important documents, and laptop computer inside.
Transportation in Kenya is a challenge. The motorbike rides and taxi excursions add up quickly. Poor people walk and some ride a bicycle. Another inexpensive option is the Sacco which is a private minibus, often packed beyond belief with people almost being squeezed out the windows, luggage tied on top. They function in the city and between towns. Longer excursions in the Sacco are possible from what I can tell, but I have been warned that they can be dangerous. Not only is there the issue of comfort, or lack thereof, there is the possibility of road crashes as they stop and go a lot. Another issue is where you might break down, and I have seen a lot of broken down Saccos, or simply be dropped off left to fend for yourself. That was not a good option with three bags, one of which was filled with a couple thousand dollars worth of stuff.
Tourists tend to hire private drivers. When I was planning the Mt. Kenya trek, Lucy Booth mentioned that the four hour drive from Nairobi to Nanyuki would be $150. “That seems expensive,” I wrote to her. She replied, “Transportation in Kenya is expensive. The best option is to fly but there is a 15 kilogram (33 lb.) in country limit, and I suspect you will have more than that.” Fly?, I thought to myself. How ridiculous! I am not a rock star.
When returning from Nanyuki to Nairobi, David my trekking partner, hired a driver from Nairobi for $110. By the way, he covered the cost of the trip and let me tag along in the back seat, which was very generous. He explained to me that Mwai was his family’s regular driver and hiring someone from Nairobi was less expensive than from the surrounding towns. We had a comfortable ride back. “Mwai, I would like some cold water. Would you please stop so I can pick up some cold water?” he said. Mwai pulled into a local grocery store about half way between Nanyuki and Nairobi. David brought us back a treasure trove of goodies like cold water and peanuts for everyone, and a coke which he offered me. “There is a clean restroom inside,” he said. I just went and it might be your last chance until we reach Nairobi.” “Thank you but I am okay,” I replied. When we got to Nairobi I met David’s family and friends, and then paid Mwai 2,500 Kenyan Shillings ($25) to take me across town to Kolping House.
In Kenya some people like cold water and some like room temperature water. When ordering water, or beer for that matter, it is most efficient to specify which you would prefer. I you do not, you will probably be asked by the server, or you might get the server’s choice. David was an experienced traveler and knew to say he wanted cold water. That way, Mwai would know where to stop, and in this case he chose the supermarket.
I got into the cab. As expected, the traffic was at a standstill. The taxi driver, Bennett, anticipated the busy streets and knew the back roads that would get us there sooner. We arrived at 8:15 in the morning for my 9:00 Easy Coach. I had selected the Easy Coach because I was told is was fast, efficient, and comfortable. I exited the cab, paid Bennett his 700 Shillings and made my way toward the Easy Coach terminal. It was pure chaos. I was walking with a day pack, large backpack, and roller bag. While the weight was not an issue and I could handle the bags efficiently, my width was a problem. At every turn people were bumping into me, jostling me. I squeezed myself and my belongings between a stopped vehicle and wall, then between a vendor and a group of people standing and talking. It was a chore. I saw the sign “Easy Coach Ticketing” and tried to make my way over. Unfortunately, the loading zone was right in front of the entrance and people were cueing up for the next bus. Finally, I reached the downstairs office.
I walked up the ticketing agent and said, “I would like a ticket for the bus to Kisumu.” “Okay, it leaves at 11:00,” said the agent. “The website said 9:00,” I said. He replied, “The 9:00 bus is full. There is another bus at 11:00.” “Okay, then please give me a ticket for the 11:00,” I said. “That will be 1400 Kenyan Shillings ($14 US),” he replied, “And boarding is promptly at 10:30.” I felt like saying that the website said it was 1200 Shillings but I kept my mouth shut. “Which seat would you like? 7A, 7B, and 7C are available,” he said as he showed me the seating chart. “How about 7B on the aisle?” I replied. I bought my ticket and saw a few empty chairs in the terminal. I sat down with my stuff. It was actually fairly quiet in the ticketing office and I would sit there as long as I could, I thought. After 10 minutes a security agent came up to me and asked to see my ticket. “The waiting area is upstairs,” he informed me.
I still had an hour and a half before boarding. I decided to find an internet cafe, maybe I could make some progress on my writing. I walked for a couple blocks, dealing with the same issues with my stuff, and saw a restaurant called African Dishes. It looked like a typical Nairobi diner so I walked up the short stairway and looked around. I saw an empty table with four chairs and headed toward that. I sat down and arranged my things. I looked up at a sign on the wall and it read, “Kindly watch your luggage.” Another sign said, “No unscheduled meetings or outside food.” I ordered the breakfast special which included scrambled eggs, a sausage, potatoes, and coffee for 250 Kenyan Shillings ($2.50 US). The server asked for my money. “Oh, I pay first? I asked. She nodded. As she took my money and turned away I saw the sign on the table, “Kindly pay when making your order.” It wasn’t so much that I was hungry, but that the food and coffee would keep me busy for awhile. There was no wifi service. I pulled out a paperback copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro and read that. Every now and then I would look around. This part of downtown Nairobi had the gritty feeling of what I might imagine an immigrant section of New York City in the 1930’s.
Finally, it was 10:15 and time to head back to the station. I arrived at the right time and searched the placards for the correct bus. I found one and it read, “Kisumu 9:00.” “Is this the bus for Kisumu?” I asked someone with an Easy Coach name plate. “Yes, it is,” so I stood in line. I was confused about the time card indicating a 9:00 bus, but I decided to stand in line anyway. I could see no other bus labeled Kisumu. Slowly, the passengers entered the bus. It was my turn. “This ticket is for the 11:00 bus,” said the ticketing agent. “It is 10:45,” I replied. “No problem,” he said, “I will get you on. I am the boss.” “Okay,” I said. He handed my ticket to another agent who was frantically writing on a clipboard, then wrote on my ticket, then wrote once again on a page on his clipboard. An assistant helped me load my roller suitcase and large backpack into an outside rear luggage compartment below the seats. Another man walked up in a crisp suit with an Easy Coach name badge. I thought to myself that he was the boss. The other ticketing agents looked down and all writing stopped, waiting. Finally the man in the suit walked away and more writing ensued. “Seat 7A, get on the bus,” the first boss said. I handed him 100 Kenyan Shillings and said, “Thank you.” I found my seat and sat down with my day pack at my feet. In a few minutes we pulled away from the station.
The bus was quiet and comfortable. I had been told that the Easy Coach bus had a bathroom in the back. I looked around, no bathroom. The other passengers were well dressed and of all ages. They talked quietly, or sat looking out the windows. As we worked out way through Nairobi traffic, I felt the jolts and bumps in the rough roads. No problem, it might even put me to sleep. I placed my U-shaped pillow around my neck, something I take with me on long flights and vehicle journeys, and settled in. I knew why row 7 was lightly booked, it was directly above the rear wheels. A well dressed older man sat next to me, occasionally talking on his mobile phone.
Over time the road opened up and traffic lightened. We passed community after community, with many open markets lining the road. An hour and a half into the journey, I look out the window and saw my first zebras in Kenya. Four were grazing in a large field, with one between the road and the fence line. We passed Maasai shepards herding there cattle and climbing now, a sign that said, “The Great Rift Valley Overlook.” To the south, the valley opened up in a seemingly endless plain. This was going to be a good trip. I turned to the man sitting next to me, “Do we stop between now and Kisumu?” He replied, “We stop in an hour and a half in Nakuru.” I remembered that the Nakuru National Park was a recommended place for seeing wildlife. There was a lake there that had a huge flock of pink flamingos.
We pulled into Nakuru to what looked like a truck stop in the downtown area. There were gas pumps and a restaurant, along with other kiosks and building surrounding the area. There was the usual chaos with people walking in all directions or standing around. As I exited the bus with my daypack I turned to the tall black man to my left and asked, “How long do we stop?” I heard a faint beeping noise to my right. “Fifteen minutes,” he replied as he held out his arm to stop me. I looked to my right as a motorcycle approached rapidly. I felt a flash of irritation, and in a split second did the calculations. Between me and the tall gentleman next to me, we weighed approximately 400 lbs. The little guy on the motorcycle weighed 115 and his bike might have been 70. We had the right of way. I kept walking and he stopped quickly, looking a bit out of sorts.
I followed the crowd to the bathrooms and lined up. I paid my 10 Shillings and found the urinal, a long tiled wall with a trench at the bottom. I thought that perhaps I should try and use the toilet but did not feel the urge. Besides, it is rare in this situation to find a sit down toilet. I looked over at the toilets and they were what I had expected. There was a stall, no door, with a hole in the concrete with roughened concrete on each side. The idea is to squat and aim as best you can, then pull the dangling string to flush. Sometimes a small porcelain bowl is inset into the concrete to facilitate cleaning. I was okay, I thought. I only had 7 minutes left. I washed my hands and entered a small store. I got a bag of roasted peanuts for 30 Shillings and a coke for 70. Perhaps I should get something more nutritious, I thought, and grabbed a drinkable yogurt for another 130 Shillings.
I got on the bus and got settled in. As we pulled away from the station, I drank the yogurt and munched on the peanuts. Perhaps a half hour into the second section of the journey, I started feeling, well, a little full. With every bump in the road my stomach tightened. I felt the familiar sensation of needing to use the toilet. It was mild, just the normal feeling that everyone gets when they need to go. No problem, I can last an hour, maybe two. I concentrated on the scenery around me. We passed Rongai and Molo. There was a mountainous, heavily forested area to the south that was absolutely beautiful. The pressure continued to build. I looked around me. The Kenyans were resting and talking quietly. Children sat quietly or looked out the window. At Londiani we turned left, heading southwest. “Sir,” I turned to the gentleman next to me, “Do we stop again before we get to Kisumu?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “We stop at Kericho.” “How long until we reach Kericho? I said. “Maybe an hour or so,” he replied.
It slowly dawned on me. I did not know if I could make it. Every bump in the road tightened my insides. I looked around at the calm and patient people sitting beside me, to the front and back. Even the children seemed at ease. How in the world did the parents prepare their kids for an eight hour bus journey with programmed stops and no bathroom on board, I wondered. I was the only white guy on the bus and I was the only person in trouble. I looked at my watch. 3:42pm. Perhaps if I concentrated on the scenery this would pass. I looked to my left at the dense forest that seemed to go on forever. Truly beautiful. I looked at my watch. 3:44pm. We hit a bump. It was getting critical. I was sure of it, I was not going to make it. Swallow your pride, I thought to myself, tell the bus driver that you are not feeling well.
I looked down the road and saw we were passing a small town. I grabbed my backpack and excused myself, as I brushed by the gentleman next to me. I headed forward down the aisle, leaned down and said to the driver, “Sir, I am sorry but I am not feeling well. How long until we stop again?” I asked. “We will stop in Kericho about a half hour from now,” he answered. I thought for a moment. “Okay, I will do my best to wait until then,” I said, and headed back to my seat. “Excuse me,” I said to the man in the aisle seat and a passed by and sat down. Once again I concentrated on the scenery. Vast fields of manicured bushes extended to the south. “What plants are those?” I asked my neighbor. “Tea,” he replied. “You don’t have tea where you come from?” he said. “No, I have never seen tea plants before,” I said. We hit another bump and I cringed. “Are you not feeling well?” he asked. “No, I am not feeling well.”
I looked out at the tea plantations before me, like sculpted hedge rows that went on for miles of rolling hills. I saw the groups of small white cottages, for the workers, I presumed. Another bump, I grabbed my belly and leaned forward. “You look like you are in pain,” the gentleman next to me said. “Should I tell the driver to take you to a hospital?” he asked. “No, I just want to get off,” I said as beads of sweat formed on my temples. I looked out the front window and we once again were in a village. I grabbed by backpack and excused myself, making my way down the center aisle. I could feel all eyes on the bus were directed towards me. I said, “I need to get off. I have two bags in the luggage bins below. Please save them for me in Kisumu.” I could see a rare crosswalk and raised speed table ahead. “Please pull over here,” I said. The driver slowed, pulled over to the left and stopped the bus. I opened the latch and jumped down to the pavement. As I did so, I felt a warm moist sensation.
I passed behind the bus as it took off. As I carefully crossed the street, a man sitting near the crosswalk said, “How are you my friend?” “Not so good,” I replied. “How can you say that? It is a beautiful day and you are in Kenya,” he almost sang. “I am not feeling well,” I said curtly, heading towards a series of storefronts near the road. I asked a woman, “Is there a restroom nearby?” She had a confused look on her face. “A toilet, where can I find a toilet?” I said. She pointed to her left so I followed her direction. I saw a sign that said, “Pub.” A man sat behind a wire cage with bottles of soda and water at his side. “Do you have a toilet I can use? I am not feeling well, do you have a toilet?” I said. He pointed toward the back.
I went around his booth and walked down a corridor. I could see what looked like a blue outhouse at the end of the hall. On either side of me were small rooms, like bedrooms, with curtains covering the doorway. I walked as quickly as I dared and opened the wooden door. I was confused. It was dark, there was a ridge of raised concrete two feet in front of me and beyond that a slick wet concrete surface. Where was the hole? A white tank was suspended on the far wall with a dangling wire. There was no time for indecision. I closed the door behind me and stepped beyond the raised concrete, almost slipping on the slick floor. There was no place to hang my backpack so I put it in the corner near the entrance where the concrete appeared to be dry. I dropped my pants and let it all go. Most landed on the back wall then slid to the floor. The relief was immediate.
I stood there for awhile looking down at my soiled underpants and at the mess behind me. How was I going to get out of this as cleanly and gracefully as possible? I looked behind me and pulled the wire. Nothing. I tapped the tank on the wall. It was dry. I looked down and could not see anything remotely resembling a hole or even an exit for the waste. I remembered that I had plastic bags and clean clothes in my backpack. I removed my shoes and stood on them, removing my underwear and pants. I would have to sacrifice one of my clean, damp shirts, and in the end it took two. I placed the soiled clothes in one plastic bag and tied it tightly, then wrapped that bag in the second bag, tied that, then put the whole thing in my backpack. I put on a fresh pair of underwear and pants, and then put my shoes on. I walked to the front entrance.
“Sir, I am truly very sorry, but I was not feeling well and I made a mess in your bathroom,” I said. “I would like to clean it up but there is no water in the tank and I can’t find any water or cleaning supplies back there. How do I flush the toilet?” “One is a urinal and the one next to it is the toilet,” he said, “The urinal does not flush.” It suddenly realized why there was no hole. I had stepped into the urinal and taken a dump there. “Is there a way for me to clean it up?” I asked. The man looked at me blankly.
All of my optometry instruments, thousands of dollars worth, along with some hidden cash, a valuable computer, and my hiking gear were on bus speeding towards Kisumu. Time was of the essence. “Look, I want to clean it up, but I don’t see how I can do that at the moment, and I must get to Kisumu as soon as possible. How about if I give you 500 Kenyan Shillings and you hire someone to clean your bathroom?” I said. I knew I was being an ugly American, and buying my way out of a tough situation but I did not see any other recourse given the circumstances. “Okay,” he said. I handed him a thousand dollar note, all I had. “Do you have change?” I asked. He looked into a coffee can, rummaged around, and pulled out four dirty 100 Shilling notes and handed them to me. I decided to forgive the 100 Shillings, as this was not a time to get too picky. “And how can I get to Kisumu?” I asked as I turned toward the road. “Talk with that man,” he said.
I walked toward the road. The “Beautiful day in Kenya” guy was sitting at the crosswalk surrounded by a dozen or so vacuum packed bundles of Kericho tea. “Sir, I need to get to Kisumu. I was on an Easy Coach but was not feeling well and stopped here, but now I need to catch up to my bus.” I explained. “And what brings you to this beautiful part of the country?” he asked. “Well, I might have a job in Kakamega but was on my way to Kisumu, when I started to not feel so good.” I said. “I jumped off the bus and here I am.” “Do you like tea?” he asked. A motorcycle driver approached and dropped off a passenger. “Sir, I’d love to chat but I really need to get down the road. Do you have any ideas?” I said. He turned to the motorcycle rider and said a few words in Swahili. “He will take you down the road, only 5 or 10 minutes to Kericho. There is an Easy Coach station there.” he said. “100 Shillings.” “That sounds good,” I said, “Thank you!.” “Would you like to buy some tea?” he asked. “How much?” I said. “200 Shillings,” he said. I paid him the 200 Shillings, took a bag of tea, and jumped on the back of the motorcycle. “Asante,” I said as we sped off.
It took about seven minutes to reach the town of Kericho, and sure enough, there was a petrol station on the right. An office in the back was labeled Easy Coach. I paid the motorcycle driver his 100 Shillings and walked to the office. When the ticketing agent made eye contact I briefly told my story. “Do you have your ticket?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said as I rummaged through my pockets, looking in my daypack pocket. I found it in my jacket pocket and handed it to him. He looked at it and said, “This is a valid ticket to Kisumu. We will get you on the next bus.” An Easy Coach bus pulled up near the road with a sign in the window “Maseno.” I wanted to go to the restroom to wash my hands. I feared that I reeked of bodily fluids, some fresh, some stale. “We need to get you on that bus right now. There is one empty seat. Maseno is past Kisumu and the bus will stop there. We will call Kisumu, explain the situation, and they will hold your bags. Go, it is leaving soon,” he said. “Asante,” I replied as I ran to catch the bus.
I sat down in the open front seat. The bus took off. Fortunately, many of the windows were open so if I smelled the odor would be taken quickly away. We were descending now, going through pastures and farmland. I looked ahead and to the left. Through the humid air I could see a vast lake in the distance, Lake Victoria.
We slowed for another speed bump. Kenyan roads are filled with speed bumps, speed tables, and series of small ridges that create bumps and noise. If you think about it, it made sense. No signs were needed which just cost money to install, and the metal would be removed and salvaged for scrap. No salary need be paid to law enforcement officers. The vehicles simply had to slow down. Perhaps the only exception would be for a high end truck or SUV with after market suspension, but even then there were limits.
Once again we began to slow. I looked ahead but where was the speed bump? The driver pulled the bus over to the left shoulder, half way off the road. The diesel engine had died. He waited a moment and turned the ignition. Chug, chug, chug, and nothing. He took off his seat belt, looked back at oncoming traffic, stepped down from the vehicle, then walked back to the back of the bus. All passengers sat patiently. A group of teens chatted and quietly sang songs in the back. I did not hear one complaint. The driver opened a compartment and did something. He went back to the driver’s seat and slowly turned the ignition. Chug, chug, chug, chug, and nothing.
He sat there for a minute, then found two reflector triangles in a compartment, placing one in back one in front. He found a bush, tore off a couple branches and placed them in the road behind the vehicle. He came back to the cab and called someone on his cell phone. He was speaking in Swahili so I could not understand him but is sounded like “airlock.” We sat there a few minutes when another Easy Coach bus pulled in front of us, putting on his hazard lights. I gathered that the bus was going to Kisumu. The two driver’s talked awhile and said “one seat available to Kisumu.” They selected a young woman to take the seat. I was resigned to my fate whatever that may be. For a moment I considered flagging down a passing motorcycle driver, but we were not in town, it was going to be dark soon. Too risky.
I could wash my hands now. There was a wide shoulder available. I would get off the bus, stretch my legs, and use the water I had to wash my hands. I even had some soap in my bag. I descended the stairs and walked the 10 yards or so to a barbed wire fence. A cow stood grazing on the other side. I got out my water bottle and rinsed my hands. I looked up at the bus and almost everyone was staring at me. I heard someone call out. It was the bus driver of the bus that actually worked. “We have one more seat. Come!” he said. I put away my water and grabbed by bag. “There, in the back there is a seat,” he said. Actually there were two seats and a young man soon joined me.
It was getting dark now. Instead of pastures and open land, there were more and more settlements, and more markets along the road. People were burning fires for cooking or disposing of trash. Evening was an active, bustling time with a lot of socializing and trading going on, much of it within 5 or 10 yards of the busy highway. As we entered Kisumu we stopped at a highway, waiting out turn to cross. I could see an opening. The driver pushed the accelerator and nothing happened. We sat there more than five minutes while the driver sorted out the problem. “Does this happen often?” I asked the young man next to me. “My journey was a nightmare,” he said. “My bus left 4 hours late and broke down once. I have been 10 hours on the road.”
When I exited the bus in Kisumu I went immediately to the waiting room where, from my experience that morning, I suspected they had a luggage check room. I showed the attendant my ticket and told briefly told him my story. “We have been expecting you,” he said. “Let me get the key.” He got the key, opened the door, and my two bags were sitting right there. He gave me the bags and I was on my way. “Thank you so much,” I said, and gave him a 100 shilling tip. I found a taxi and said, “To the Sovereign Hotel, please.”
I had done my research. The Sovereign Hotel was a bit out of my price range, costing 11,500 Kenyan Shillings, which is $115 a night. After all, I still did not have a job and was running on savings. But in this case, my intuition was right. I needed a soft landing after the long journey to Kisumu. I would call it a business luxury hotel with unique and modern architecture, spacious clean rooms, and an excellent restaurant. I washed my shoes, opened the plastic bags, thoroughly rinsed out my clothes and hung them to dry. I took a long hot shower with lots of shampoo and soap. I put on fresh, clean clothes and headed down to the restaurant for dinner, arriving a half hour before they closed at 10:00pm. The server who took my order said, “You look tired, I can see it in your eyes.” “I am tired,” I replied, “But I am very glad to be here. Asante.”