Nairobi to Siakago (2 of 2)
The matatu stage in Embu was surprisingly large for such a small town. Located directly next to the town market, it was a large, dusty (naturally) field filled with minibuses, trucks, and Peugeots. Jamie walked directly to the matatus heading to Siakago.
All the drivers (no conductors on this route) seemed to know him. “James!” they exclaimed. “Are you going to Siakago? Let me take you!” Jamie spoke to them in Swahili for a few minutes and arranged for us to ride up front with one of the drivers. Now, Lonely Planet lists first on its rules for riding in matatus, “under no circumstances allow yourself to be placed in the ‘death seat’ next to the driver – extra leg-room does not outweigh the disadvantage of certain death in the event of a head-on collision,” so I was a bit concerned. Jamie, however, pointed out that these were not the type of matatus I was used to. These matatus were run-down, beat-up old pick-up trucks with a cab on the back. Under the cab in the bed of the truck is where the passengers rode, unless they wanted to risk riding in the front. After a quick peek confirming the crush of people jammed in the cab of the truck, the front seat looked like a pretty good option to me. We took our seats and waited to leave.
It took about half an hour before the cab was jammed with enough people to leave for Siakago. It did not take more than five minutes for the word to spread that there were a couple Mzungu in the stage. So for the next 30 minutes every vendor working the stage paraded by our matatu and tried, rather forcefully, to make us buy what he was selling. True to form, they were all selling the exact same items I had seen at every other matatu stage I had been to: biscuits, water, Fanta, and cookies. Shouldn’t there be some variety? I had traveled halfway across the county – why were the same exact things for sale?
Well, there was one new item on sale: watches. One guy was selling watches and he would not let us forget it! Every five minutes he stopped by again, hoping we had changed our minds. He would stick a watch through the window and try to force me take it. All this after Jamie got in an argument with him about a watch he had sold Jamie a few weeks prior that never worked. Well, the guy was tenacious, I can give him that.
In addition to the venders there were several small children hanging around the truck watching us. When I first arrived a week earlier, Jamie told me that Kenyans think Westerners, and Americans in particular, talk in very high voices and that children make fun of us about it from time to time. I actually had forgotten he told me this, until now as the children teased us by repeating over and over in a very loud and high tone, “Hello! Hello! How are you? How are you?” It was sort of charming and enjoyable to be made fun of by these kids about such a silly cultural difference. Now that I think about it, it really is true: Americans do speak in a high tone. I do, especially when I use certain phrases, like “No way!” and, “Check it out!” and, “Dude!”
Another difference the children pointed out was that Kenyan men don’t really have hair on their arms. I do have hair on my arms, and the children ran their fingers lightly over it, over and over, apparently amazed. Finally, the kids got bored with us and kept themselves entertained by doing a little dance and by singing “Je m’appele” over and over.
“That’s a big hit song in Kenya right now,” Jamie told me. “We’ll hear all the kids in Siakago sing it, too.”
“Is the dance part of it?” I asked.
“Yeah, there’s some kind of dance that goes with it. I have no idea of how it goes,” he responded.
“It’s like a Kenyan Macarena,” I said.
About then the driver got behind the wheel and we were off to Siakago, leaving the vendors, the dusty matatu stage, and the dancing children of Embu behind.
The road from Embu to Siakago left me nostalgic for the Mombasa-Nairobi road. While in disrepair and full of potholes, the Mombasa-Nairobi road was at least a road. The road to Siakago was a long, unpaved, dusty series of huge holes, deep ridges, and dry creek beds. Our little matatu/truck rode up and down these obstacles like a small ship on high waves: up and down, up and down, up and down. The driver, experienced through many back-and-forth trips a day, steered the truck from one side of the road to the other, following the high points and avoiding the holes as best he could.
The trip took about an hour, and I was happy when we finally arrived in Siakago.