Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Jingle Bells

On December 24th I set out for Nairobi to meet a friend that was arriving from the U.S. I woke up at 4:30am and by 5:30am Steven had flagged the matatu (bus) down for me. We hopped across the river and something fairly large made splash. Neither of us saw it, probably just a mudfish... The place we crossed the river was pretty close to where they hyenas and lions had holiday zebra feast.

The matatu was crowded, so I was happy to get a seat. It was still dark and the only thing I could see was the silhouette of the r'ungu carried by the Maasai men. The r'ungu is basically a club that I commonly refer to as a "head knocker." Most Maasai men carry these and they are easily capable of crushing the skull of an attacking animal. The first leg of my trip went extremely well, a little too well maybe, and I was in Narok by 8:30am.

I then waited about an hour for the next matatu that would take me to Nairobi. This matatu was not a bus, but a small van that crams in 14 people for a ride that should take a little over two hours. These vans are the one of the primary methods for people to get around in Kenya, and given that it was the day before Christmas it was a busy day for public transportation. I have mentioned before that the roads in Kenya are not well maintained, so it is a bumpy ride. It has also been very dry the past two weeks, adding blinding dust to the rickety ride. After the driver got in the vehicle, it took him approximately 1.5 seconds to honk at his first pedestrian. A few more minutes to whip out his cell phone. If there was an olympic sport for honking a horn, these drivers would sweep the gold medals without a doubt. I think some of them have their hands on the horn more often than the wheel.

At one point we were bouncing along a dusty road and the CD the driver had in started playing "Jingle Bells." This cracked me up, since I grew up in the great state of Minnesota where I am used to having snow and it being very cold when Jingle Bells in playing. Today, I had 90 degrees and dust tornadoes instead. I bounced along as the singer rang out "in a one horse open sleigh" and I couldn't help but grin and take a bit of video of the road. The video is about 45 seconds, but if you listen closely, you can catch the holiday spirit of the road without getting carsick in just a few seconds. (Note: due to limited badwidth in the Mara, we are currently unable to upload the video. We hope to have this video inserted here in the near future).

Before reaching Narok the matatu must drive along the treacherous road running up the side of the escarpment, basically a road along a cliff. The guard rail has been ripped apart in many places where unlucky travelers have plunged over the edge. The matatu drivers are not known for being cautious and routinely pass vehicles on blind curves and hills, so it makes for an exciting ride to say the least. That was the least of my worries on this day.

About half-way up the escarpment we were pulled over at a police checkpoint. The unfriendly policeman directed us off the road into one of the few spots to pull off on the road. After we pulled off the road, a flood of other matatus began spilling into the area. Apparently, the brains of the police force had decided today was a good day to check all the matatus to see if they had a functioning speed governor. Matatus are supposed to have a speed governor that limits the top speed of the vehicle to 80 kilometers per hour (kph). Earlier in the ride my matatu hit 140 kph, so I knew our vehicle was going to fail the test.

The driver disappeared for while and while he was away a random guy stopped by and told us to move the car. A young kid quickly jumped in, started the car and tried to move it. One problem with his plan, I am sure he had never driven a car before. First, he tried to drive it when it was in neutral. No dice. Then he managed to get in into third gear and stall the van again. No dice. Then he just held the clutch in and let it roll backwards until he was evicted by a few of the passengers.

The driver came back after a while and began peeling his insurance sticker off the window and admitted to me he would not pass the inspection. I guess he figured the fine for not having insurance was better than the fine for not having a speed governor. A minute later I saw him shaking hands with one of the police officers and I knew something shady was going on. A few minutes later he was back and drove the car to the back of the crowd. The police officer ordered us to go out front and then shut the gate behind us. I knew it was going to be a long time before that van was going anywhere.

By this point it had already been an hour delay for all the people that earlier in the day were excited to see their family and friends for Christmas. The inspectors finally showed up, both of them. I have no idea why they pulled over more than 50 vehicles, then had only two inspectors that arrived an hour after pulling people over. Then I remembered the first rule of the Mara: "Don't apply logic." We were not in the Mara, but the rule is pretty general and can be applied throughout most of Kenya.

After about 15 minutes of wandering aimlessly, the inspectors decided they could now inspect a few cars. To do this, they jacked up one of the back wheels. I will stress, they only jacked up ONE of the back wheels! Then they had the driver floor it to see if the vehicle would shut off at 80 kph. Needless to say, most of the vehicles did not. I saw people standing in front and behind of vehicles with one wheel jacked up and the driver pushing the gas pedal to the floor. A disaster waiting to happen.

The other passengers were very nice to me and kept me posted on what was going on, since my swahili is still not very functional. After about two hours of this nonsense, a student that was on my matatu signaled for me to walk back to the van and get a partial refund. I did this and then followed a few of my fellow travelers to the highway. I had been told hitchhiking along this highway was not allowed, but so is running red lights in Nairobi and everybody does that. My new friend led the way, walking up the escarpment towards Nairobi.

After about 15 minutes of walking we flagged down a bus and we jumped in while the bus was still rolling. The bus had what I believe was Christmas music blasting and was in a festive mood! I decided to go for my second snickers bar and finish my second coke, all of the food I had for the day so far. A couple hours taking care of business downtown, then another half hour bus ride, some food, and another half hour bus ride and I was at my final destination.

As much of a sweaty, cramped, strange day it was, I had fun. There is no better way to get to know a place that take public transportation. Jingle all the way!


Dan said...

Assuming the vehicle has an open differential, the lifted wheel would receive all of the engine's torque and spin freely while the grounded wheel remains stationary. So what they were doing wasn't quite as dangerous as it seemed but I certainly wouldn't recommend it!

Anonymous said...

I think to best illustrate Dan's comment would be to view "My Cousin Vinny" as I think it is the same type of issue that gets the protagonists out of jail.

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