Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kenya Calling – Batting with Bandits

It is said (I have no idea by whom) that if you are lucky you die (which means everyone is at least lucky), if you are luckier then you almost die before finally dying, and if you are luckiest (like I always am) then you not only almost die but actually shake hands with death, smell her heady fragrance, embrace her if you may and then return before one day you finally die. This is actually a funny story (aren’t all stories are!) and has nothing to do with dying at least not of anyone I am aware of, but I thought this would make a good preamble to a tale where bandits would eventually drop down from out of African bushes.

If I would listen to even one hundredth of safety advices that my friends and strangers throw my way all the time then I would still be a simple boy from the backyards of some obscure Himalayan village and wouldn’t even dream of going out anywhere outside the precincts of my grazing goat-land. So when I declared that I was heading on my own astride a matatu for the Northern wasteland and the Mathew Ranges in Kenya, I was severely cautioned by all, Paula (this amazing lady and now a dear friend shall be introduced properly in a post later) in particular declaring that I would be drugged, doped, duped and finally robbed by bandits. She also insisted that I write down her mobile number on my palm (since I would shortly be lightened of my mobile phone by my fellow-passengers) and call her if I was indeed held up at the wrong end of a nasty gun. I have no idea if that ever happens, how on earth am I going to call Paula or anyone else for that matter. I couldn’t simply ask my assailant to hang on to the trigger long enough for me to borrow his mobile phone (since mine has long gone) and make a call pronto to Paula; and even if I could and did (not all bandits are rogue by the way) then what could Paula possibly do. But then she is Paula-the-Great (she could well be the long lost cousin of Alexander the Great) and she is loaded (with goodwill and smiles) so perhaps she would negotiate with the bandits that if they promised not to return me then they could have a free safari in the Nairobi National Park.

I am half-deaf anyway and I choose to hear only what I wish to listen (as another friend of mine would surely vouch) so all such advices and counsels fall on deaf ears and on the destined day I buy my ticket from a tout with a twisted cap on his scruffy head. I perch my precarious posterior (as they are by now soar from all the gallivanting I have been engaged in since the last few weeks) on a prickly pedestal that they call a seat in this part of the world. Soon the matatu is overflowing with mamas, papas, sisters, daughters and dangers, not to mention the abominable stench of human excretions as well as fried foods that fill up my nostrils like the smog that hangs over NYC every morning. Humans are followed by human belongings and things begin to fly through every orifice that the vehicle has and it has quite a few. From windows and sliding doors, beneath my feet and over my lap, and under my elbow, over my head things pile up like an anthill aiming for the Guinness World record for the tallest structure on planet Earth that can be squeezed into a matatu. By the time everyone settles in (in a morbid manner of speaking) I am sure that we had achieved the ultimate world record that would not be broken in this century at least, or in my lifetime, whichever happens earlier.

The air is hot, panting and porous. I am held in a death vice from all around and beneath and above. Lulled by such joyful interiors and mellifluous companions and with my dead mobile and money inserted deep within my smelly socks, which adds to the calmness of my mind, I soon fall asleep cuddling my tiny backpack as if it holds the last member of royalty (go figure which one I am talking about). I dream of the Bahamas and the cerulean skies of the Himalaya and finally the matatu reaches Isiolo (a dirt-rattled town with a large Islamic population nearly 330 km north of Nairobi) where it shudders and stutters and vomits out its passengers that nearly walk over each other to reach the outside atmosphere. Now begins my actual adventure. The first stage is to find a matatu driver who didn’t look like the first cousin of Mike Tyson and who would take me to the point where I had to meet up the vehicle from Camp Sarara.

Lest you get confused, which I am sure you all are, I must tell you how my route lay and brief you on the lay of the land. My travel arrangements with Piers who would be hosting me at his Camp Sarara located deep within the Namunyak Conservancy were thus: I had to reach a certain point in the middle of nowhere, a turning off point, where his vehicle would be waiting to pick me up around 2 pm. I just had to reach this turning off point somehow around that time. The route I would take is: Nairobi to Isiolo by road on a matatu, then hire a private matatu (since I was going to leave the main road) who would go from Isiolo via Archer’s Post and Lerata (where we leave the tarmac and hit the dirt road going to Wamba) and would drop me till the turning off point. From Isiolo it involved traveling over extremely barren, deserted and badly damaged roads for a distance of around 75 km. The area north of Isiolo is famous for Somalian bandits as they roam around the deserted and arid landscape looting vehicles and people under swaggering AK 47 or Chinese automatic rifles. Their favorite target being solitary vehicles with few passengers (that exactly fitted my prospective ride).

At Isiolo I look around for a matatu driver and all look capable enough of beating Mike Tyson. I look further and deeper into the stinking alleyways and peer inside every matatu. Eventually an old man who must have seen me poking my nose like an impatient gazelle, asked what I sought. He leads me to his son, a very capable and brave matatu driver he assures me, who could take me anywhere in the continent I wished. I meet the son, he meets my criteria though he could outpunch any lightweight boxing champion, and we start our negotiation.

The old man and his son on one side and I on another. I draw a map and explain them the exact drop off point, mentioning the distance in particular. They hum and haw and look at the sky and the moon and then on the red ground and then at me. ‘How much you pay?’ the son asks. I tell them I have no idea how much is the correct amount, but left to my choice I wouldn’t like to pay anything. They find that amusing and few more minutes pass by as they look up and down and scratch their chins pensively. I have no idea what the time is but my shadow under the sun tells me it’s well past noon. Finally the old man speaks, ‘Ok you give 6500 bobs.’ (all my male readers don’t read it wrong, there’s no extra ‘o’ in that word and in Kenya it means Kenyan shilling). I nearly fall off my feet. I nod my head gravely and declare that they were asking for a king’s ransom and where would a poor Indian student like me find that kind of money.

That makes them laugh (which is good in any form of negotiation) and I know I am winning. They find it amusing that a white haired and bearded scrawny little chap like me could be a student. So I tell them about being a student all your life, etc which they again find highly amusing. ‘Ok,’ the son now says, ‘how much you pay?’ I quote 2000 bobs. They nod and hum and haw and make an offer of 4000. Offer and counter-offer continue for a while in between smiles and finally we seal the contract at 2500 bobs. That makes everyone happy. Suddenly the old man hugs me like his long lost first born and pushes me inside the matatu next to the driver’s seat and off we go like a bazooka across the Afghan hills. My driver plays music and sings and grooves as the deserts outside rush by my window in a blur. We reach Archer’s Post in a blink and suddenly I sense a new found alertness in my driver’s demeanor.
We leave the main road and enter into the courtyard of a rundown mud house and I feel that my end is near. A group of bare bodied young men are loitering beneath a tree and they eye me through slit eyes that betray no emotion. Perfect stance for your prospective executor. The driver hops out and asks me not to step out, of which I have no intention. He soon drags out a can out of the house and I realize it’s a refueling stop. Soon we hit the bumpy road. As we come out of Archer’s Post we find a line of colorfully dressed Samburu women lined up across the road and waving at us like kites soaring in heaven. We stop to enquire and my driver chats with them through the window, one woman being the spokesperson who knows Swahili. I don’t think my driver knows the Samburu tongue anyway. They want a lift till Lerata and beyond, my driver declares and I can see that he is unwilling.

In this region any kind of vehicles are so sparse that mostly these women would be walking for hours under burning sun carrying provisions back to their village in the jungles. I have come into their land and to study them closely, to befriend them and understand their life and livelihood. I instruct my driver that I didn’t mind and we must give them lift. Soon enough the women pile up inside falling over each other, followed by big boxes and bags of provisions they had bought from the market. This would be their monthly stock and they would return again the next month. Finally a boy arrives and speaks to me, ‘we are bandits and we will rob you soon.’ He follows that with a big grin, so I know that he is being funny; or maybe not. He had only come to settle down the women and once packed in like sardines on the back seats he gets off. Our matatu roars back to life and we fly into the desert winds. At Lerata we duck left and leave the last vestige of civilization and safety. Now we are deep into bandit land where lawlessness is the law and a man and his belongings are soon parted. My money is safe but my camera and lenses are in my backpack so I hope that the bandits are not keen on photography.

The road is groovy and bumpy, topsy and turvy, and the women sing from behind, my driver keeps pushing his pedals and I look for the bandits. At a particular turn of the road, just as we approached a magnificent acacia tree, out-step a group of men on to the road and wave us down. My driver doesn’t look happy, so I know he isn’t in cahoots with them. The women behind look as serene as ever, after all to them these bandits must look like newborn kids from yesterday. They approach us and I roll down my window. I don’t necessarily detest bandits or robbers or such men, they rob after all out of need; they are often poor and have been socially victimized by those above them. It’s almost like we kill animals to eat but mean them no harm otherwise, so with such bandits, they rob out of need and they don’t really mean any harm to their victims.

It takes them no time to realize the situation; a scared driver, a busload of Samburu women who could cut them down to their smallest sizes any moment and a charming looking, openly smiling foreigner of unknown origin who looked even more ragged than them. Though I can see the rifles slung around their shoulders and the sharp knives poking out beneath their shirts, I extend my hand to the leader and wish him the day. I am neither alien to guns or gun users. I have been held up by such people countless times before around the globe. I can fire any gun efficiently and notice that their safety catches are still ‘on’. I also know that I can take away the gun from at least one of them and use it against them if needed.

I stay calm, smile my best smile and offer them my hand to shake. They ask me to step out in broken English and ask me where I am from and how come I was traveling with the Samburu women. I tell them that it’s actually they that are traveling with me and spin my usual story of being a student on research work in these parts of the world. They ask for my passport that I don’t have and they go through my pockets and find such pittance that they leave them there. They don’t think of checking my socks for some reason. My backpack is well hidden under the flour sacks of the Samburu women and the bandits don’t dare to go through the Samburu belongings. They ask me how come I have so little money and I don’t carry any bag with me. I tell them that I have already been robbed the day before and I had nothing more than what I have in person. They believe me as they are trustworthy men of God. But I can see the leader is having second thoughts, he is thinking and has stopped baring his teeth – a potentially bad omen. I am certain I would soon be abducted. And then suddenly, out of the arid desert, rises a rumbling of such proportion that I am deafened for a minute.

The Samburu women have had enough by then. To them I was a benefactor and they knew what was happening. Like a deluge they rush out of the vehicle brandishing sharp objects and surround the bandits while screaming and singing their war songs like a banshee. In a moment the tables had turned, now the bandits were being cornered. Samburu people are extraordinarily valiant and they fear none except their elders and witch doctors. The women challenge the bandits while I and the driver ogle in disbelief. Many of the women are octogenarians and each of them is really scrawny but to see the fire in their eyes is something else. It’s a perfect standoff. Eventually the bandits stand down and retreat into the jungles and we recommence our journey like before.

The moment the vehicle starts moving, the women regain their erstwhile calm and smiling attitude and they give me a warm smile and surround me once again with their songs. We soon reach the drop off point and meet up with Camp Sarara vehicle. The place is indeed in the middle of nowhere. I pay the driver something extra and ask him to drop the women where they want to go, for it would be cruel for both of us to leave them in the midst of the jungle with scores of miles for them to go with such heavy loads. As we part I shake hands with each of these brave women, not knowing or finding the words that I need to utter. But then in such worlds, words are unnecessary. I smile and they smile back, I wave and they wave back and the last I see of my matatu is a racing devil on wheels blowing dust all around with dozens of hand emerging out of the windows and waving at me like windmills.

I will never see them again but from this day on, they would always be a part of my journey.

P.S. The cartoon appearing with this post is courtesy Bruce from UK and And you guys hope you don't take me to a lawsuit now that I have acknowledged the source

Kenya Calling – Mango in Matatu

Matatu is synonymous to Kenya as the lions. The country is unthinkable without either. If I had the power, I would put a lion inside a matatu as Kenya’s national emblem. Every guidebook worth its misguided notions recommend a visitor to stay as far as possible from one while all my well meaning friends, both original born Kenyans (surprisingly) and expatriates and those working in the country for a while, vociferously united in their anti-matatu campaign and tried their best to dissuade me (even to the point of making it scary) from ever riding into one. What more an excuse did I need to decree that come what may, hail or hurricane, a matatu ride has to be an integral and absolute part of my Kenya package!

Now most of you might be wondering what exactly am I referring to! Those who have been to Kenya would upturn their nose and declare – ha, we know it all, while those who haven’t might head for Google. But I would request you both to indulge me a bit and learn it from the latest fan and initiate into the matatu cult of Kenya.

Matatu is what keeps Kenya moving, not only forward but in every possible direction; there could be one going up too though I am yet to see one; while if there is one indeed going that way it won’t surprise me a bit. And if I am to believe the gossip-mongers then many a faithful Kenyans indeed take their last mortal ride en route to heaven on a matatu; in that way it does help you to move in the vertical plane as well.

Technically speaking, it is a medium sized mini-van; either Toyota or Nissan makes that seat 14 or 11 passengers plus a driver and a tout. They ply everywhere within the cities and then there are those that run inter-cities and in that manner you can perhaps reach every corner of the country barring only a few. The ones that connect the cities are called either a shuttle (14 seats) or an express (11 seats). Matatus are the cheapest and fastest mode of transport for Kenyans. Bad roads, road jams, road blocks, waving policemen, mob or riots, rain or sunshine; nothing comes in the way of a matatu and its destination since a matatu doesn’t run, it flies.

They stop everywhere, even the so called ‘non-stop’ ones and don’t be surprised if the tout asks you to perch your bottom on a big mama’s lap or worst still on his lap. Just be thankful that you found a seat in a jam-packed matatu and then join the rest of your fellow passengers in praising the lord. The intra-city ones have route numbers written on them and often they do multiple-routes in one single journey. So till a point it may display the number 108 (the matatu from my place to the city center) and then change it to 11. This sudden shift in identity is mysterious though it essentially doesn’t change the route and you would still reach your destination only if you know where it is. A matatu is a moving, jostling, vibrating and erupting discotheque as it blares music at top volume, entertaining even those who don’t wish to be entertained. Once inside a matatu you kind of lose your basic human rights of ‘choice’. You just ‘be’ and go with the flow.

Within Nairobi, all matatus converge to and diverge from few main places, like near fire station or railway station right in the heart of the bustling city. To go from one end of the city to another, you may have to change few matatus, but rarely more than two. The fare varies between 30 – 50 Ksh (1 Euro = 104 Ksh), irrespective of where you want to go. The tout opens and squeezes you inside while the driver floors the accelerator even as your bottom half is hanging out. It’s good for airing your posterior though not for a passerby whose hat or head might be knocked off by your jutting butt.

The touts are not really aggressive, no more than their Indian brothers, but highly persuasive and they don’t cheat like many would want you to believe. If you can make them understand where you wish to go then they would even guide you or drop you at the exact place and if they really like your hairdo then even plan your day for you; all for free with only few well meaning smiles. While compared to similar modes of transportation in India what makes matatus stand apart is that no one, absolutely no one in a matatu goes standing. Every one sits and has a seat to himself or herself. In India that’s an inconceivable luxury.

The best way to catch a matatu is to go to any road and just stand wherever you feel like, be it under a tree or beside a clump of shanty shops, and wave down a matatu as it comes roaring down the road like a bull on heat. The only thing you need to get right is on which side of the road you should stand to go your way. If the matatu has sitting space (even if it is on a lap) it will screech and the door will slide open in one fluid motion of synchronized rhythm with finesse strident enough to wake up even the prince of Addis Ababa. In you go, you might even be grabbed by your collar by the well-wishing tout, and you deposit your derrier in any seat you find vacant or something similar in shape and dimension. By that time the matatu has returned to its raging bullish form.

Initially the cacophonous music will deafen you but as you move to the groove and your body learns to handle the jerks and jumps, you would start relishing it like a long lost symphony from the times gone by. Everyone is swaying and so would you. After a while or a long while, the tout will gesture at you with a raised finger, which might be considered very crude and rude in some parts of the world; but here he is just being at his politest best. You insert your fingers into your pocket and depending on what coin or note you get, drop into the extended palm. Now here’s something that totally boggles me. The fare that the tout will accept from you will to a large extent depend on his mood, the angle of the sun, the kind of music, the roll of his eyes, and what he thinks of you. As a foreigner I could get away simply by looking adorably dumb and naïve. What exactly happens is that you might drop in a coin of 30 or 40 or a note of 50 Ksh in the guy’s palm and if you have overpaid then obviously he won’t mention that to you (since you are dumb and a foreigner) and quietly pocket the money but if you have underpaid him (since you are dumb and a foreigner) and the conditions are right then he won’t ask you for the extra money either. So each time I would simply drop the minimum matatu fare of 30 Ksh and look as dumb as possible even when I knew that the right fare was 50 and till date no one asked for the balance amount. If this doesn’t convince you of Kenyan hospitality to outsiders then what will? When you need to alight, simply rap your knuckles smartly and sharply on any piece of metal, rapid two short ones, and the matatu will halt at the place.

For inter-city matatus, you need to go to Accra Road near Nairobi Fire Station city centre and look for the signboard atop the roof of the matatus, where they declare the destinations and route they would be plying. For traveling anywhere in Kenya take only the matatus; they are the cheapest and fastest way to travel and you travel with the locals so you get to experience the country like the way it is.

Now during the initial days as I was being whisked away by my friends in their cars or I was paying exorbitant and extortion type taxi fares I would look lustily at the matatus passing me by and salivate at the prospect of riding inside of one. But my friends wouldn’t even hear of it. They opined that I would be drugged, robbed, my mobile would be snatched, my empty pockets would be picked, I would be duped, etc and literally taken for a ride.

But then all such theories only made my resolve stronger for a brush with matatu. So one day I stride out of my house and straight onto the road and jump like a sky-diver into the first matatu that comes my way. To hell with directions and decisions, for me the ride is the cake and the cream, no matter where it takes me. But I did take my precautions: all cash and card and mobile (in silent mode) inside my socks, only 100 Ksh in small changes in my shirt breast pocket. All my trouser pockets including the inside ones are absolutely empty. No watch, no fancy sunglasses, hair in complete disarray (it will be better if you go with few days of stubble); visibly dirty clothes and a big idiotic grin plastered from ear to ear. Act the fool and a lost poor foreigner in search of help and the touts and your fellow passengers, among of them some of the elitest pickpockets on the planet, would all come to your rescue.

The moment I stepped into my first matatu ride, I gained liberty and freedom of movement. I didn’t have to wait any longer for anyone, and no one had to reschedule their visitations, neither did I have to willingly submit to being robbed by the taxis. Now I know most of the routes and can avoid being delayed or duped and I am yet to be robbed or doped or taken for a ride. For me it is a jolly good ride and a ride that I intend to ride for all my rides wherever it is possible

The funny title has nothing to do with matatus actually, except that my hostess the superbly elegant and eloquent Maryjka, one day bid me to carry a mango on one of my long matatu trips and I decided to eat the ripe orange fruit in the matatu while speeding towards destined doom at F1 speed on a road that would put Cambodia to shame. I ate the fruit without dropping a single drop on my lap or on that of my neighbor and what happened thereafter is an altogether different story for another time. For now let’s all hail the matatu and clap our hands in appreciation that though these fast moving ugly boxes on wheel break the sound barrier so often they keep Kenya and Kenyans moving without killing so many as we are lead to believe. Believe me – for now I am not only a matatu expert but a champion for their cause.

Long live the matatus, may your tribe thrive and may more of us to you subscribe.

P.S. The accompanying picture is the true depiction of a matatu at its best. It has not been doctored, misrepresented or mishandled in any way. And believe me this matatu still has room for more.

Camp Sarara

Just today I returned from Camp Sarara in the Mathew Ranges, the only eco-lodge within the vast 850,000 acres Namunyak Conservancy Trust. It is managed by Piers and Hillary Bastard along with the son Jeremy. I am not going to write my post on Sarara as of now since that will be akin to riding a time machine and fast forwarding my entire Kenyan safari as I have so many more experiences to share that happened before Sarara. While departing from the lodge when Hillary handed me over the visitor’s book, the following rhyme came to my mind out of the neighboring hills and I jotted it down in the book. It might sound and seem incredibly silly but I thought that to pay my immediate tribute to this wonderful piece of paradise on earth and to acknowledge the grace, charm and hospitality of Hillary, Pierce and Jeremy I must at least post this poem that in its simplicity depicts what Sarara experience is all about. It is a place like none other I have visited before. Here’s to you the trio of PHJ; with much respect and admiration for what you are and what you stand for. Such generosity and kindness can never be reciprocated in equal measure. They are to be accepted with humility and treasured cherished for life A big thank you!

From Sahara through Mara
I come to Sarara

A paradise of love and care
Million moments of joy with elephants to share

Nurtured by Piers and Hillary
With lot of energy from Jeremy

Hyrax drop from tree
Hornbills shriek in glee

Buffalos and leopards play
Where monkeys are always gay

Samburu songs fill up the wells
Cows nod and dance with bells

I have seen the world and the 7 sea
But it’s Sarara where my heart will always be