Nairobi to Siakago (1 of 2)
The following is a section of my expanded journal from my trip to Kenya in 10/00. The bit below describes a trip from Nairobi to Siakago via Embu. I was travelling with my brother Jamie – who was and continues to be in the Peace Corps in Kenya (posted in Siakago). The section begins as we arrive in Nairobi after an all day bus trip from Mombasa.
We arrived in Nairobi at dusk. We had only a frantic half hour or so to run to the Downtown Hotel to pick up Jamie’s big bag and get to the matatu stage before the last matatu left for Embu. The matatu stage we used to get to Embu is the largest I saw in Kenya. It took up several dusty blocks and was not too far from the Hilton.
Jamie kept saying, “Isn’t this nice? They just paved this.”
To me, the paved street still looked like a dirt road, because the pavement was covered with a thick layer of dust that kicked up whenever a matatu passed by. The matatu stage was a beehive of activity. Conductors yelled out their destination as we passed by, drivers revved up their engines in an effort to convince travelers that they were about to leave, and venders sold the usual combination of biscuits, Fanta, and whatnot.
When we arrived at the area where the matatus bound for Embu were parked, there was one battered Peugeot station wagon among a few traditional minibus-type matatus. Jamie suggested we take the Peugeot because it was an easier ride, though it cost a bit more. I didn’t care how much it cost – the words “easier ride” sounded pretty good to me after a day-long trip on an ancient bus traveling down the Mombasa-Nairobi road.
The Peugeot still needed a few passengers before it left so we had to wait around a bit. We had hardly had anything to eat all day, so Jamie left me in a search for food. Somehow Jamie must send off a vibe of knowing the score, because when we were together we were left alone. However, I must have had a sort of dumb-rube look, because as soon as Jamie wandered off into the crowd no fewer than five young men in a row approached me. Each assured me that he was an expert guide for Mt. Kenya excursions (Embu is near Mt. Kenya) and asked that I take him along. As soon as I got rid of one another would walk right up. Add to this the fact that the conductor picked that moment to demand that I pay for the ride and you have a pretty overwhelming situation. I fended everyone off as well as I could, told the conductor I would pay when everyone one else in the car paid, and kept an eye on our bags. Thankfully, Jamie soon returned and the car was full so we were off.
Jamie had bought us each an ear of barbecued corn on the cob. The corn had been sprinkled with a spicy red powder that gave it some real heat. People in Kenya like to eat what Americans consider to be animal-grade corn. It has big tough kernels and is not sweet at all. Jamie told me that once a shipment of food aid in the form of sweet corn had rotted on the dock because no one would eat it (sounds like a Peace Corps myth to me). Anyway, this corn had been roasted, sprinkled with the spice, and sold in the husk. It was pretty good, but I could only eat about half of it. Jamie finished his and the uneaten half of mine and tossed the remains out the window. No one seemed to think anything of it.
The ride to Embu was a bit unnerving. As usual the driver went very fast, how fast I don’t know (and neither did he) because the speedometer didn’t work. And because we were driving at night, I quickly realized that about half the drivers on the road were missing at least one headlight. Whether it was an “easier ride” is debatable because, true to form, the shock absorbers on the Peugeot were either very old or non-existent; we all felt the impact of each pothole. On the positive side, everyone in the car seemed very nice and friendly, which gave the Peugeot a real good-natured vibe to it as we raced down the road.
The ride to Embu took about two hours. We arrived around eight o’clock and were exhausted. We headed immediately to the Izzak Walton Inn, a hotel with a pool (!), a bar, a restaurant, and, according to Jamie, great rooms. Jamie had me pretty exited about the place, and I was looking forward to a nice room and a good dinner. However, it was not to be: the Izzak Walton was full! The place was full to the brim with prosperous-looking Kenyans. I wondered what could be going on in Embu to attract such a large crowd, but I never learned what it was.
We decided to grab something to eat in the bar, then head on down a kilometer or so to stay at the Kenya Boy Scouts Training Center. The Kenya Boy Scouts Training Center is, as it sounds, a training center for boy scouts in Kenya. It offers comfortable beds in big dorm rooms with hot showers. For 200 shillings, who can complain? And, as it ends up, Jamie and I were the only ones staying there that night, so oddly we each had our own private dorm room with six beds to choose from.
In the daylight, Embu seemed like a very pleasant little town. Probably the least visited of the towns that circle Mt. Kenya. Lonely Planet has this to say about it: “not many travelers stay here overnight and with good reason, since there’s nothing much to see or do.” I did see one thing in Embu – as we were walking towards the town center we were passed by a huge white Land Rover with “UN” printed in thick black letters on its doors. I had never actually seen a UN vehicle before, except on the television news. Seeing the UN Land Rover was a bit odd and added a bit of the surreal to the morning.
“World food program,” Jamie noted as the UN vehicle passed.
Our first stop was for breakfast. We ate in a little café that Jamie knew. For a few months he worked on a project in Embu once a week, so he had the lowdown on the best places to eat and drink. His presence in Embu during that time seemed to have had an impact in town, because as we walked to the café a few people on the street said, “Hello, James!” and kept walking. After one such greeting, Jamie said, “I have no idea who that is.”
“No idea?” I responded.
“No idea. When I worked in Embu I would meet people here and there and forget about them. Then a week or a month later someone will stop me on the street and start talking like we were best friends.”
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I just go, ‘Oh, yeah, so how are you?’” he said, laughing.
The café was pretty nice and gave us a view of a big sculpture in the middle of the road. The sculpture was of two huge hands: one hand held a fly swatter (President Kenyatta’s symbol) and the other hand held a gun (President Moi’s symbol).
Jamie had a huge bowl of chicken soup for breakfast, while I just stuck to mandazi, flat bread served all over Kenya. We both had tea. The café had a pretty funny vibe going because it was decorated on every wall with mirrors. This decorating forced me to watch myself eat no matter where I looked.
Something else strange about the place was the TV was blaring way too loudly for that hour of the morning. The Kenyan state television only broadcasts a few hours a day of original programming, filling the rest of the day with American and European reruns. Today they were showing Scooby-do. It was surreal and bizarre to be sitting in a small, dusty Kenyan town watching Scooby-do while I drank my morning tea. What could Scooby-do possibly mean to a Kenyan? Would Kenyans understand what was going on? How about when Don Knots was a guest? Would that make sense? I mean, it hardly makes sense to me that Don Knots would be a guest on Scooby-do, so what would some guy eating breakfast in Embu make of it? Although now that I think of it, the Mystery Machine does look very much like a matatu, so maybe some things do transcend culture.