I’ve had a lot of time on my hands since I resigned from my job this February (a little earlier than planned actually). The plan now is to relax, write and travel for the better part of 2013. Therefore, I decided to kick things off with a short trip to Garissa. My lovely cousin has been working there for over a year as a dentist and I missed hanging out with her. Therefore, just before she travelled to Nairobi for a nephew’s wedding, we planned how I’d make the return trip with her.
As is customary, I was late for my bus. Due to miscommunication and the temporary death of “Sexy Pants: The Sequel” (my cell phone), I arrived in town at 2:00 p.m. Too bad that was also the departure time for the Garissa-bound bus we were meant to travel together in. Thanks to the awesome ability to recall the telephone numbers of family members, I eventually got my cousin’s number and learned of a second bus leaving that same day. The only catch was that I had to board it at the bus terminal in Eastleigh before 3:30 p.m.
With no time to waste, my wonderful bag carrier and I made for “Little Mogadishu”, that sprawling mini-metropolis just outside the capital city. There, intriguingly-named shopping complexes and open-air stalls straddled extremely dusty and non-existent roads filled with potholes and piles of unearthed soil; angry welts on an already bruised surface. With heavy human traffic and brightly coloured garments and fabrics fluttering from every shop window and simply constructed kibanda, Eastleigh was pulsating with life and colour.
Using directions sent on text, we made our way to the booking office and happily found that the second bus would actually depart at 4:00 p.m. This gave us time to grab a quick lunch at the nearby restaurant, Qummileya. (Let’s just pause at that name for a second…Okay.) We’d passed it on our way to the office and what had caught our eye were the infant-head-sized burgers on display. Yes, they were actually that big and just as tasty as we had hoped given that we were part-carnivore, not cannibal ;-).
Wolfing down the meal, we quickly made our way back before the mud-splattered bus pulled out of the terminus. I’d secured seat number 1 but on boarding the bus, I found an elderly Somali gent had taken my seat. Deciding to sidestep the drama, I let him sit there, figuring, if nothing else, I had better access to the bus driver should I have any questions.
Once reasonably full, the bus smoothly pulled out of the parking spot, circling a putrid makeshift roundabout made from garbage before working its way through downtown Eastleigh. Interestingly, it hadn’t occurred to me to find out what direction Garissa actually was. See, my understanding of the border town was limited to images of camels, policemen and army personnel on the back of Mariamus, silhouettes of Al Shabaab fighters and my cousin’s face thumbtacked somewhere within all that madness.
However, when we got on to the superhighway, we took the A3 which indicated that Garissa stood 369 kilometres down that tarmac tongue. Placing my luggage in the space between my knees and the bus’ windshield, I took out a book and settled in for the long six-hour drive ahead.
Though deeply engrossed in the book, I managed to pick up on the fact that we actually took the turning off the highway towards Thika town. We drove past it towards Kao land. Then it hit me, of course! Dry (Nairobi) –> Drier (Kao land) –> Driest (Garissa). In any case, I soon nodded off, waking up each time the bus slowed down at a police checkpoint.
By the way, the bus had two conductors; a loud, grey-haired Somali man with a boisterous, geek-glasses-sporting counterpart who went by the name, “Raila”. And much like his namesake, he too was popular. All the cops asked after him when the bus slowed down at the checkpoints, hawkers crowding the bus yelled his name just as it was bandied up and down the bus aisle. Strangely, I cannot recall the sound of his voice, all I remember is that he looked a lot like Gabu from P-Unit.
Anyway, after about three hours, the bus stopped in Mwingi town. As passengers began to disembark, I discreetly asked the bus driver why we’d stopped. He said we’d be taking a 15-minute meal/loo break. I cautiously got off the bus and walked towards the cafe the bus had parked in front of. The 7 o’clock news was going on and everybody was watching with rapt attention at a recap of the day’s court proceedings in the 2013 election petition case.
Seeing that I had no working phone and couldn’t recall the faces of my fellow passengers, I decided to order something light so that I wouldn’t be left behind eating githeri (or more likely, muthokoi) in a dark and unfamiliar town. After ordering a glass of juice which a distracted waitress informed me the cafe had run out of, I decided to get back on the bus.
Buying a cold soda on my way back, I passed the time looking around at the line of street vendors operating out of upturned cardboard boxes set on wooden stools with torches or lanterns illuminating a wide array of goods all under 100 bob. Also milling around were boiled eggs salesmen insistently tapped the sides of plastic hotpots ferrying oval delights.
Turns out Coke goes well with mayai boiro, especially after discovered pilipili in the kachumbari! Soon it was time to leave and after I’d gotten up to excuse Mr. Originally of Seat No. 2, the man decided to strike up a conversation. His name was Musa, a business man who was married with three children. Musa’s youngest child was a five-year-old girl called Zam Zam.
Seeing as he regularly travelled between Nairobi and Garissa where he runs a retail shop and manages property; respectively, he was curious about my late night trip to his hometown. He talked a lot about his life, wife and business but completely lost the plot when he suggestively nudged my elbow and asked if I could change my plans so that we could travel back together the next day.
That’s when “Caro”, my creepy men/stalker-friendly persona emerged. I told him that I was a third-year student at UoN who was engaged to be married. Ha! Okay, I didn’t say the engaged bit. However, when he asked for my phone number, I gave him that of my wonderful bag carrier. Then, during a lull in the conversation, I quickly turned away from him and pretended to fall asleep. A few minutes later, I actually did.
At about 10:30 p.m., we arrived in the outskirts of Garissa town and stopped at the final checkpoint of the night. This time, the cops actually boarded the bus and went about checking people’s IDs. I woke up, yawned and pawed through my bag looking for my purse. My heart started racing when I realized that I didn’t have my National ID with me.
To curb the influx of illegal aliens, the police carried out strict checks upon entry or exit of Garissa town; a fact my cousin forgot to warm me about. Of course by now a cop had reached our section and was asking that I hand over the relevant document. I figured that of all the items in my possession, perhaps a NHIF card and former work ID would vouch for my nationality best. Nervous but calm, I explained that since both items had my image they should somehow suffice. After a bit of back and forth—including having to laugh at a disparaging joke about my gender given that my head was uncovered—the cop decided that everything was cool.
We then rolled into the quiet county in the Northern Frontier that was lit by moonlight and the security lights from closed down shops. Musa kept telling me how he had to get off shortly but would call me the next day. SMH! Anyway, remember that earlier text from my cousin with directions? It also included the numbers of two cab guys that she regularly uses. So, when we finally arrived at the bus company’s Garissa office, the driver graciously let me call one of the cabbies, Steve. He picked up on the first ring and informed me that he was actually across the road waiting for me. I grabbed my bag and started to disembark from the bus only to find my cousin standing at the end of the steps, waiting for me.