Friday, April 18, 2008


The most famous dangerous and crowded conveyances in the world are Kenyan matatus, the mini-vans that careen though the streets here in incredible numbers. Officially known as PSVs – Passenger Service Vehicles – their accident rate climbed so high that in 2004 the Transport minister forced a law requiring speed governors and seat belts. Yesterday, as I was blasting along the highway in a matatu, the insurance industry rescinded a 15 percent premium break originally given after the law was imposed. The transport minister who pushed the law is gone and yesterday the Transport Licensing Board told the Daily Nation newspaper that most of the matatu’s speed governors had been “tampered with,” and that “most PSVs were moving at speeds between 140 and 160 kmh, instead of the stipulated 80 kmh.”

“Travelers on Kenya’s roads,” the licensing board’s chairmen told the Nation, “are increasingly being put at risk because of the matatu madness.”

Mad but efficient. Waiting on the train and dhow yesterday, I decided to find a beach north of Mombasa. A travel agent said “White Sands” was the closest, and a few minutes later I am being assaulted by too many choices:

"Bamburi, Bamburi, Bamburi."

The shouts come so fast they sound like one long sing-song word.

"Ferry, Ferry, Ferry, Ferry."

Malindi, Malindi, Malindi." Malindi; that's it. I squish into the Hungry Vulture.

We are nine, and then in rapid succession ten, 12 and fourteen, plus driver and boy.

“Malindi, Malindi, Malindi,” the bus boy, who’s a man, not a boy, shouts again and again, like a cd stuck on skip. He rides with his head and shoulders out of the open door window, scanning the crowded streets. He’s not just collecting money and operating the door, he’s actively selling, cajoling, sniffing for the slightest sense of someone, anyone, contemplating a ride. Two hard bangs with his knuckles and the matatu swerves to the curb; the door slides open and out he jumps. A woman jumps in, steps on my feet – wide hips and thighs pushing against my shoulders – and squeezes into the back.

Two more hard, fast raps and the matatu is off. The boy swings in, slides the door forward with a bang, 50-shilling bills folded lengthwise between his pinky and ring finger. A tap – he doesn’t even make eye contact – and we hand over our 40 shillings, about 65 cents.

Had we been shot into space to a distant planet we would have been the perfect sample of humanity, conveniently packed into a can.

Next to me is a woman in black, head to toe (which I find unsettling, unable to read face or expression or even dress), only her eyes darting about, her left hand ornately hennaed. Behind us a dark black woman with almost shaved head, a baby on her back, with long dangling star-shaped earrings and red beads around her neck. In front of me a woman with her arms covered in silver bracelets and a purple turban around her head, clutching a bucket wrapped in plastic, a Rasta guy next to her, and men in ubiquitous t-shirts and flip-flops. And me. The smell of humanity as raw and acrid as an eastern shore chicken house in August.

Knock, knock, swerve, open, shut, slam, knock; brake and accelerate and honk and swerve – the driver’s eyes never leave the road and the pace is fast; a dance times a hundred, a thousand, as matatus everywhere all around move in frenetic step honking and braking and bus boys jumping in and out, past rows of market stalls of sticks and plastic sheeting and carpentry shops displaying beds and coffins, that goes on for miles and miles. The third world is all about tiny margins of profit in billions of miniscule exchanges; speed and maximum capacity are of the essence. Regulation; safety; comfort – they cost money and there is no money here. Or rather, there’s money, it’s just like grains of sand instead of jewels that fill your hands.

But it works: in 20 minutes I am at the beach. Even more impressive, on my way home I had to catch a matatu from the highway and wondered how long I’d have to wait. No worries: I stand on the roadside for 11 seconds before a matatu scoops me up and deposits me at the Mombasa post office, there to grab a waiting tuktuk for my hotel. Total cost: about a dollar.

Off to the port to see Captain Mohammed and port boss Hamed, who sit around a scarred wooden table in a small office overlooking the Indian Ocean, talking of Dubai and Somalia and Zanzibar.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Original Lunatic Express, Delayed

Sitting in the relative splendor of the Royal Castle Hotel, originally built as The Palace in 1909, in Mombassa, Kenya. Ceiling fans on the high ceilinged verandah, the hedge of palms and mother-in-law tongue a buffer from the heat and sun and frenetic street.

Arrived last night on the slow bus from Tanga, after pulling into Tanga on the slow bus from Dar es Salaam, all the while ruminating on just how much money insulates, especially in the third world. Indeed, it’s no wonder that the rich live longer, healthier lives.

Life out there is harsh: the air is polluted; the water is full of who knows what; the sun is intense, unrelenting, unless a sudden rainstorm is driving down. In buses and mini-vans, known as daladalas, passengers are squished together like chickens on their way to the slaughterhouse. There is no respite: the clanging of horns and shouting; dirt, dust and mud; heat and dampness – my senses get overwhelmed by the raw elements from which there is no relief. The exhaust alone can be overpowering. For a while it poured rain yesterday and the bus’s roof leaked: big steady drops fell on my legs.

Well, there’s relief for me – after suffering last night in the New Palm Tree hotel – broken toilet, no hot water – I hit the Royal Castle.

We got stuck on the Kenya/Tanzanian border last night for two hours. No food, a couple of wooden benches on which to sit, all because two passengers were without passports and got kicked off the bus at the Tanzanian exit yard. Six miles further in, at the official Kenyan frontier, their luggage was discovered still on the bus. The authorities were flummoxed, hence the long wait, which left us hurtling through the darkness past villages glowing in flickering fires and oil lamps, and not arriving in Mombassa until 9 pm, almost three hours late. People without passports would never be on the fast, air-conditioned bus.

Contemplating my next move. Arrived at the train station this morning to find out about the train to Nairobi – the original Lunatic Express, in fact. The station was deserted. “Oh, many troubles,” said the guard, sweating under a white shirt and tie over a second collared shirt, that one with pink and blue stripes. “The train is canceled for now because we care a great deal about our customers.”

That was a bit too enigmatic for me, so I pressed on, and found a kind woman behind steel bars at the ticket office. “They have suspended service because of the kills,” she said. “For the time being there is too much risk to human beings.” Turns out the train was attacked two days ago, a victim of the Mungiki sect, which particularly likes, apparently, to circumsize victims and sometimes just cut off their penises. No passengers killed, in fact, but the tracks were ripped up and the morning train met its end. “The cargo is still going; we can pick that up,” she said. “But the carriages capsize and tumble over one another and it is very messy. We will review the situation on Monday and maybe a train will go on Tuesday. Yes,” she said, “you can take a bus. Have you thought about flying?”

I really wanted to take that train. And offers are coming in, that might make me veer off the Express for a bit. In Dar I ended up drinking warm Scotch and soda with Bhachu, a 60-year-old Tanzanian Indian now living in Lubambashi, Congo. He’d just taken delivery of six dump trucks and two coaches from the UK, which he was about to drive to the copper mines of southeastern Congo. Six days. “You are most welcome to come along,” he said. “At the Congo border much will be stolen from the trucks, but we are prepared for that.” I was intrigued.

And then this morning I found my way to the port, through the twisting alleys of Mombassa’s old town, full of women in full chador – only their brown eyes peeking from narrow slits. I paid 100 shillings – about 75 cents – and slipped through a gate, the Indian Ocean shimmering blue and green down a few flights of steps. Moored just offshore lay a 100-foot long wooden dhow waiting to take on thousands of pounds of cooking oil, electrical transformers and bags of cement, and on which I was offered passage to Zanzibar. “Leaving Saturday,” said Crispin, a deckhand, “and should only take 18 to 20 hours.”

Might be too hard to pass up.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Welcome to Africa!

Stuck in Jo’burg, waiting for a flight tomorrow morning. All not lost, however: yesterday after arriving here from Sao Paolo I ended up at a travel agency in super chichi mall, trying to get tickets on Air Zimbabwe and Air Malawi. Not a straightforward matter. Agents Mpume and Deborah were delightful, however, and by the time we were done I had an invitation to dinner in Soweto. Six, they said, for real African food, and don’t be late.

Not exactly a ride on the Lunatic Express. Met them as they were locking the agency doors and they were ready to go: all high heels and lip gloss and lilting accents, like two birds chattering on a spring morning. We bombed through Jo’burg and after an hour of traffic and getting lost, a half-dozen cell phone conversations in various languages to help get us on track, and weaving through traffic lights darkened by the city’s rolling blackouts, ended up at an open, that-roofed bar/restaurant with picnic tables and oil drums filled with hot coals against the cool night.

The Township of Soweto is vast, a million people, a warren of narrow streets and square concrete and cinderblock and corrugated metal shacks, barely illuminated with dim lights. But post Apartheid has brought improvements and restaurants like this one never existed until its end.

I sucked down tripe stew and tumbled through the keyhole, lost in an array of languages. Deborah spoke five; Mpume, a Zulu, sang songs punctuated with clicks, and the hard drinking men around us closed in. “Why are you girls with that white man?” Mpume, translated, but curiosity (and the allure of the women) got the better of them, and soon they were plying us with Johnny Walker Black and beers.

“I hate Americans,” said a guy whose name was something like estrellas, but with a click at the beginning, “but I like you. I don’t know why.” Politics and political murder; crime; the resurrection of Christ – “We have a new pastor and I told him, ‘I am a good Christian but I do not believe in the resurrection.’ We argued about it, and on Easter morning I passed on my usual shot of whiskey before church. His sermon burned and moved me and made me cry. But it did not convince me!”

I tried to buy a round but failed, and Mpume rebuked me: “You cannot compete with them,” she said. “They must show how important they are so they buy for everyone at all these tables,” she said, waving her hand at the tables on either side.

After three hours we escaped into the night and the Soweto traffic, swerving around smashed cars in what looked like traffic wars, and hurtled down the highway back to the suburb of Randburg, Rihanna and Akon blasting at top volume. And Mpume shouted, “Welcome to Africa!”

Unfortunately, I forgot my camera...