Bus Diary - Jinja, Uganda to Nairobi, Kenya; 5/10/10
9:05 AM: My companions and I have been waiting for the Akamba bus for an hour or so in Jinja, Uganda, at the station, which houses a mechanic's, a cafe and cake place (I got a pineapple muffin that turned out to basically be a frosting sandwich - not bad), and a guest house that boasts a pork joint. Banana trucks keep driving by, piled up with enormous bunches, green on a blue sky. Then the bus pulls in. It wants us to know that We Are Going To The World Cup - it proclaims so in five colors across the top of the front windshield. I get in and take a back seat in between two men who speak over my head, and eat green oranges, and spit the pith and seeds onto the bus floor. I am on my way to Nairobi, Kenya. It should take about eight hours.
9:16 AM: There is a large rectangular flatscreen TV hanging down over the aisle, in line with the front row of seats. I didn’t notice it until five seconds ago, when it started playing a taped episode of WWE RAW. The only other people I know who watch RAW live in suburban New Jersey. The cultural wormholes go between unexpected places.
10:33 AM: A fun bus game is seeing how many people shoot awake when the driver ignores a speed bump. Five this time.
10:45 AM: There are decals of soccer players in mid-kick in the corners of the bus windows, so people in certain seats look like they’re about to get kicked in the head by stencil-people.
11:19 AM: I have been having spiky half-awake dreams in the thick heat – apparently it’s not ordinary here to open bus windows. I am woken up by a high-decibel version of Happy Birthday coming out of cell phone speakers – someone is calling the man next to me – and the brakes jolt and we are at the border.
11:21 AM: Many places in America meant for processing humans are as sterile and cubic as those meant for processing food. This border is instead an organic mess, with mantises perched on the teller windows’ security crossbars, and a carpet of churned up red mud and rocks. And the humans themselves (ourselves), and the messes we build up around us. We’re moving in vectors, out of one country into another, getting in line, getting stamped, turning a corner, taking the measured mad slow dash across the no-man’s-land that is the border itself, undergoing the mental drawing and draw of that invisible line, closer and closer and then over, and finding ourselves out of Uganda, and in Kenya instantly. And the rest of the people, on foot, or on bikes and motorbikes and in cars but still obeying the rules of foot traffic, are looping around us and trying to pick us out of our boring orbit. The border has become a small market, and if money changers don’t tail us, like superheroes in their bright slicker-colored capes, it’s water sellers. They promise that the water is very cold, which is nice to think about. A few people in Obama shirts somehow (somehow!) figure out that we’re Americans and ask to have their pictures taken with us at the border sign. Foreigners are celebrities – they are to us, too. There is a mutual fascination that everyone accepts and runs with. What was an open outdoor space becomes no better than a mall escalator when everyone is going the same way. Somehow the crowd currents me to the window I need.
11:53 AM: Best-named vehicles so far:?- Missed Call 1 (motorbike)
- Excellent Obama (small van)
- Facebook (small van)
- Antidot (large van)
- iApple (small van)
- Jesus Terror (bicycle)
- Indiana Jones (small van)
12:20 PM: Two members of the Kenya police have boarded. I’ve never been so close to a gun before. Trying to think like I imagine a journalist is supposed to – why might he have a gun? In what situations does he use it? – but keep coming back to “is it loaded?” and “why is it so close to my head?”
12:51 PM: Someone has finally opened a window and a small white butterfly has come in. He is causing a ripple; I am tracing his progress by watching above seatbacks for hand movements. I’m rooting and not rooting for him to leave – I like him in here, and I like the breeze, but something tells me he’d be better off taking his chances outside.
1:46 PM: We stop in Kisumu, hometown of Obama’s grandparents (a lady next to one of my friends told us). A thousand restaurants and carts sell identical chips wrapped in different ways. I get them from a lady who took them out of a grease-blurred glass box, put them into a thin plastic bag the size of a tube sock, and closed the top by wrapping it and stabbing it through with a toothpick. Swahili pronunciation turns the word “chips” into something more like “cheeps” and the street sounds like a henyard. It’s nice.
2:02 PM: It started raining out of a blue sky when we were all outside, and the bus is damp. There is a crying baby on board now. My fellow passengers and I are making the universal “great, there is a crying baby on board” raised eyebrow face at each other. His mother is comforting him by telling him something – I catch the word “kiboko”, which can mean “hippo” or “whip” (whips used to be made out of hippo hide around here). Either would make a good story subject or a good punishment . . . I wonder which she’s going for.
2:56 PM: Eleven people jolted awake this time, including me. Ow. Ten points.
4:28 PM: Had been lulled into mindlessness by visions of passing traffic until just now. We’re on a narrow part of the street, barely two lanes at all, and we very nearly just smashed into a cake truck. Maybe this wouldn’t have been entirely bad, as we’re the biggest thing on the road, and the chips were a while ago, and I’m hungry. Still, though, there’s a faint rainbow out the right windows, between us and the hills, where the clouds are close around, and I think I’ll look at that instead of through the front window from now on.
4:41 PM: If William Carlos Williams were born in Kenya and spent a lot of time outside the Mambo Leo Hotel (literal translation: “the What’s Up Today Hotel”) he would have written this poem instead:
So much depends
A red Coca-
Surrounded by hungry-looking men with ma-
And filled with white
* it is assumed that at least some of these chickens are white beneath the dust, or that he is taking artistic license.
4:53 PM: We are dropping someone off by the side of the road, near a cluster of slat wood shop with fences around them and laundry hung brightly on the fences like war flags. The man we let off has crossed the muddy street and is now sitting by it helping a woman bag bunches of clean orange carrots. Akamba bills itself (or other people bill it) as the Greyhound of East Africa, but I don’t think Greyhound would be chill enough to do that, even if they could.
4:55 PM: It seems the person across the aisle from me has bought a bag of those carrots! She’s cracking off the tops and throwing the fronds out the window. The sound is refreshing after a day of the dull grumblings of bus parts and sleeping people and the outside world sifted through metal and glass. It also means the window is open again.
5:01 PM: Everyone woke up for that speed bump, ONE HUNDRED POINTS.
5:09 PM: RAW is back on. A man on screen is soaking a bunch of others with a high-pressure hose attached to what appears to be a milk truck. The officers in back are laughing very hard.
5:13 PM: A long stretch of farms, eerily deserted because it’s going to rain. Everyone on the bus can feel it and it has gotten somehow even quieter.
5:41 PM: It’s raining now, and the windows are fogged, and it’s impossible to see anything. After nearly 9 hours we’re all becoming freer with each other, and now that the rain’s actually here the quietness has disappeared; two women a few rows up are singing, and the man next to me has borrowed my Swahili book and is laughing at it. The baby hasn’t cried for a while, and his mother is talking to him, counting the bushels of potatoes that line the road, stacked like pyramids inside their buckets. Their seat-neighbors are joining in. And no one can see into the bus to know any of these things.
5:50 PM: From the blurred blocks of color through the rain on the windows, I can tell we’re coming into a town.
6:07 PM: I was right. And this is the stop where hawkers try to sell you watches. It’s like New York City is thinking about moving and is starting to phase itself into Kenya. We don’t need watches, but my companions and I buy tiny plastic cartons of ice cream, which tastes like cold sweet food coloring, and like the flat wooden spoons we use to eat it.
6:15 PM: Back on the bus. I’m fading. I guess Kenyan ice cream doesn’t come with a sugar high. Everyone is snuggling down into their seats and I can’t bring myself to be an exception. We’ve all settled into our roles as components of this big moving organism.
8:30 PM: The organism has made it to Nairobi. I guess We’re Not Going To The World Cup today, after all. That’s lucky, as Nairobi’s where I’m supposed to be. We disembark. My pith-spitting friends go left, the mother and baby go right, and I stand around with my companions and wait for a taxi, which will be smaller, quicker, and altogether less interesting than the bus.