One of the holidays I will never forget is Christmas of 2015. It left me in a muddle and practically imprisoned in the city. I usually book a ticket around December 15, right after confirming with my employer when we would be breaking for the holidays. But in this particular year, I was convinced by a friend that I need not book those expensive buses. One of those fellows you bump into at the pub who seem to know everything told me that one of the buses on the Kakamega route, Crown Bus, had introduced extra coaches and that they would be opening bookings for the Christmas season on the 20th. And that their fares were friendlier on the pocket, added this fellow, his bloodshot eyes blinking convincingly.
And so I basked in the knowledge that I had time, and need not rush. Come the 20th, I drop by the Crown Bus offices on Lagos Road early on my way to work, confident with my Ksh1500 in my wallet, thinking I was the early bird that would catch the fat worm. And you know what? Turns out that that story about extra coaches was just that; a bar story. There were no extra coaches introduced on that route by the company, and the available ones had been steadily booked online through to the 27th. Meaning the earliest booking I could get on the Kakamega route was on the 27th night bus. You should have seen the crestfallen look on my face. The price we pay for being too trusting with folks we meet at the bar.
And so I took off in a mad rush to try the other bus companies, most of which have offices on River Road. But it was the same story. Western Express was fully booked, same to The Guardian, Modern Coast and the other buses that travel to Kampala via Kisumu. I had hit a dead end.
I tried booking a ticket with the shuttle buses that operate from the Tsavo Road vicinity but those do not take advance bookings. You have to get a ticket on the date of travel; in short, their prices are subject to change, depending on demand. My ujanja had reached an end, as they say on the streets.
I made my way to work like a zombie, knowing that the only option left is to scramble for space on the Machakos buses or with the hordes that usually gather at Kangemi stage, and be prepared to pay through the nose even as I elbow my way aboard.
If you come from Western Kenya and live in Nairobi you are probably familiar with the excitement that takes over the villages around Christmas. It is a period of excitement tinged with anxiety. For one everyone wants to leave the city and travel upcountry to spend Christmas with their folks. Almost everyone, that is, except those dyed-in-the-wool urbanites who have to be practically dragged upcountry to attend important family functions like funerals of a patriarch in the clan and such. Or those who simply don’t like shags.
The best place to measure this heightened activity is at the Machakos Country Bus station for those ‘Westerners’ who live in the Eastlands part of the city and Kangemi bus stop for those who live in Kangemi, Kawangware and its environs. It is common to see entire families huddled together waiting for transport upcountry, sleepy kids who were rudely woken in the wee hours of the morning dozing away on their luggage as the adults haggle for fares with the touts. Whenever a bus pulls up it is a mad struggle for the unoccupied seats, with kids often being loaded in through the windows. The trick for those who live in places like Kangemi is for the father to wake up early and go book seats on a bus in Machakos Country Bus station as the mother waits with the rest of the family at Kangemi. These are the kids you will see being scrambled aboard through the windows as everyone else fights for space at the door. By that time all the decent buses with private booking offices in the CBD will be fully booked, and the only option is to use the rowdier Machakos buses. And they are not cheap. By that time the fares on most of the routes will have doubled.
As for the daring and adventurous, another option is to use private vehicles, which might get you to your destination or not, depending on the driver’s predisposition. It is a gamble. For the extremely adventurous there’s a thrilling but illegal option: use the newspaper distribution vans, which are driven like bullets. If you choose this option, you will practically be turning yourself into luggage, since it is clearly written on the vehicle that the driver is not allowed to carry passengers, and by agreeing to be locked in the back of the van with the stacks of newspapers you are practically becoming a part of the cargo the driver is delivering. Extremely risky, but then extreme situations call for extreme measures!
There’s this fellow I met – again at the bar! For some reason juicy stories always come from there – who told me that he once used this option after partaking of several jugs of keg with part of the money he was going to build his bachelor’s siimba house with. As usual the newspaper people locked him in the back with their cargo after they had pocketed the fare and the journey began. It happened to be a chilly night, and keg is known to play tricks with the kidneys on a journey. And so somewhere along the journey my boy was awoken from his jouncy dreams by a burning bladder. What to do? He tried banging on the side of the van and shouting at them to stop so that he could take a pee but the guys upfront did not hear or heed him. The bullet continued to whistle through the night. And given his bladder was almost bursting my boy had no option but to do it right on his pile of newspapers and then go back to sleep. They later rudely woke him up and let him out at Kisumu where they were terminating their journey. Unalala sana, Mzee, kwani uko kwa kitanda yako na bibi? they jested, tossing him a hundred bob to complete his journey by matatu. My boy collected his sock and slunk off into the dark. He has no idea what happened later when they started distributing the papers.
Anyway, back to the story. In short these were the gambles I was forced to contend with that year, thanks to the mistake of believing the fuggy judgment of a late boozer. Come 24th morning, when I had planned to travel, I was up with the birds, splashing cold water in my face and grabbing my bags, which I had packed the previous evening. As I made my way through the dark streets by torchlight I soon discovered that I was not the only one. Practically the whole neighbourhood was headed where I was going, shining their way by the light of their ‘mulika mwizi’ cellphone torchlight, the kids, wrapped in warm traveling jackets, tugging along, holding hands, yawning into their fists. I started sweating, even as I quickened my pace.
After navigating the maze-work of streets I finally found myself at the Kangemi bus stage. And to my shock there was a crowd there, with more travelers arriving by the minute, even though dawn hadn’t broken yet. And from the look of them some had clearly spent the night there, wrapped in their woolen night-coats, guarding over the mountain-loads of luggage they were traveling with: worn bed bug-infested mattresses that were rolled up and tied with string, old sofa sets, cupboards and an assortment of household goods. Why did people travel with such luggage at such a time? I wondered to myself.
Anyway, that was the least of my concerns at that time. My worry was that there were only two buses at the stage, a rickety Mbukinya bus that looked ready to fall apart, and which was being laden with luggage on the roof rack with the sinewy manambas using long sisal ropes to haul up wardrobes and huge bales of cloth, which they secured onto the rack until the poor bus squatted down on its haunches like a cricket preparing to take to flight. The other bus was no better, a garishly-coloured bus with a nondescript name that I can’t remember, but which was colourfully lit and revving restlessly like a hunt hound straining at the leash after picking up the spoor of a rabbit. It was playing loud scintillating soukous music by a fellow called Sakis from the Congo, the driver honking maniacally to the beat of the music.
It was utter chaos, with everyone scrambling to get a ticket, the touts, who were usually known to seduce travelers to board during less peak seasons, were little kings now, not smiling at anyone, nor bargaining. I tried to hail one of them who was known to me. We had once shared a drink of chang’aa that they had ‘arrested’ off a lady traveler who had taken them for fools, loading the illegal liquor in the boot in Khayega without telling them. Usually, you are supposed to inform the touts when carrying such cargo and give them their tip, in case of trouble with the traffic cops enroute. Anyway, this time around my boy didn’t even acknowledge my greeting.
To cut the story short the sun rose and traveled steadily into the sky and the first bunch of the morning country buses passed by, but I did not manage to get a ticket on any of them. Instead, I found myself marooned in an even bigger sea of travelers. I debated taking a matatu to go try my luck with the shuttle buses in town but I have this sixth sense that tells me when I am beaten.
And so, what to do? I couldn’t go back to the house to read a book or watch a movie or turn on the music or some of those normal things people do when they are idle at home; my mind was in a muddle and I simply wouldn’t follow anything. And so, I lugged my bags to my usual watering hole next to the Kangemi bridge and drowned my frustrations in an early beer, surrounded by these merry fellows who had spent the night there, some snoring in the lounge seats with spit drooling out of the sides of their mouths.
The day dragged by agonizingly slowly, and as the afternoon kicked in, I made my way back to the stage, hoping that maybe this time round Lady Luck would smile at me. I had spent the day trying to call friends to see if anyone knew anyone who was traveling by personal means and who had a vacant seat but to no avail. I was even ready to travel in the back of a charcoal truck – that is how desperate I was! The worst bit was when I called a friend who comes from my village and he told me they were already at home and that, actually as we were speaking, they were at a busaa den sampling the traditional brew. If you want to give a Luhyia man working in Nairobi a heart attack tell them that during Christmas time when they are desperately trying to travel! It gets worse when they can actually hear the voices of the merry-makers in the background of the call.
Anyway, so I went back in the evening again to try my luck for the third time, thinking that the lot that had been there in the morning had either traveled with the return buses or given up and returned home. Usually at this time the Machakos bus drivers make up to three non-stop trips to capitalize on the craze, keeping themselves awake with loads of coffee and miraa. The buses have just enough time for minor repairs and checks before they are back on the road.
To my utter shock when I went back the place was even more crowded, the travelers now irritable and combative, shouting and shoving with the touts whenever a bus looking to pick up a fare stopped by. Reason being the touts are clearly a cartel, and have fixed the fares such that the bus crews have no choice but to play by what they say. And although the fares are still steep, you still have to elbow your way through to board. I took a hard long look at the chaos playing out at that stage and realized that, save for some magic abracadabra, there was no way I was going to travel that day. You see, I have a conscience, and it was asking me what I would feel had I somehow managed to wrestle my way aboard and occupied a seat that rightfully should have been taken by one of those desperate mamas totting toddlers. I guess it would feel great, right?
And so I went back to the bar and gave some more of my Christmas money to Kenya Breweries. Since I couldn’t go back to cook in my lonely house, I ordered food and ate. Then I drank some more.
Somehow, I later found myself in my house with my bags intact. I think I took a boda boda ride home. But all I know is that I woke up with a splitting headache and the familiar sight of my drab city apartment with Burning Spear staring calmly at me from the opposite wall. Right then, that flat seemed more like a cell. The sun was well up and there was a little shuffling of feet in the corridor outside of another lone soul going to the bathrooms or to the kiosk to buy cigarettes or whatever. Save for that it was silent as a tomb. It was now Christmas day; but you needed to look at the phone calendar to know that. That is because there was no Christmas noise outside; the tingly laughter of kids on a Christmas morning, the crow of a caged rooster that was soon going to be slaughtered to make the Christmas stew, Christmas music blaring from a neighbour’s radio, the drunken singing of a merry fellow returning from the club to take a quick shower and nap for two hours . . . all these sounds were missing.
I swung my heavy legs off the bed and took stock of my bedsitter, with my packed bags dumped by the door ready to leave, my travel jacket thrown on the couch and my head in a riot. I understood then the frame of mind that that country singer who sang ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ was in when composing; the loneliness of the pre-journey hours. I took a glass of cold water and tried to clear my mind.
Today was Christmas, there must be a way someone can get out of this city . . . I was watching a cockroach that had paused from its exploration of the crumbs on my coffee table and was now watching me steadily, perhaps contemplating what its boss was thinking, or perhaps wondering why I wasn’t leaving it the freedom of the flat like was the case with his kin in the neighbouring flats. It was fearless, this cockroach, and it made me feel like an intruder in my own house for which I paid rent.
I looked at the stove in the corner and the dirty pans which the roach had probably explored all night. I decided that I wasn’t even making coffee in that house. My mind was not there; transported to another place. Only my body was here.
And so I showered and changed and left that depressing house, looking up and down the deserted corridor. Most of the doors were locked, the neighbours away in their shags. There was a moody old man still in the flat at the very end, and who rarely traveled anywhere. He was outside throwing leftover ugali at a thin fowl tied to the verandah steel railing with a sisal string. I suppose he was going to slaughter it later that day. I didn’t bother to say ‘hi’ because the mzee rarely spoke to anyone. I debated going back inside and picking up the bags but I suddenly felt very tired. I was beaten, and I had better learn to live with it.
I went back to the place I had been in the day before and slid on a bar stool. There were the usual characters already at their respective sitting places – regulars at any bar usually have a specific seat and spot that they drink at. A few grunted greetings here and there, an eyelid peeling slowly off a bloodshot eye in silent recognition there, a cigarette butt glowing red somewhere in the gloom like Satan’s eye, the smoker’s face buried behind a cloud of smoke . . . hardly the stuff to inspire a cheerful Christmas story.
As I ordered my drink I thought about the green fresh air of the village. I pictured myself standing outside my house looking at the crows perched on the banana trees, watching the slaughter of chickens underneath, waiting to swoop in on the entrails and castaways. I could clearly hear the cows lowing in the background as they waited to be milked, the new-born calf gamboling on the lawn as it found its steady feet, the weavers that had colonized the palm tree on my fence busy building their colony of nests. My mind was clear as a bell. Or I would be on my verandah, dressed in a vest and shorts, wiggling my toes in my bathroom slippers as I ate a roast cob straight from the shamba or traded banter with an early visitor who wanted us to go to the busaa dens. It rent my heart.
I drank but I didn’t get drunk. Later, bored of sitting in that dismal place with old men drinking themselves to the grave I decided to go into town. All my friends with whom I usually enjoyed Manchester United matches had traveled, meaning there wasn’t really much to talk about with these fellows, even if I knew them.
At the matatu stage there was a long queue of parked matatus, the makangas idling away the time chewing miraa and drinking from clear plastic bottles as they waited for the first one in queue to fill up. I popped my head in. There were about two or three people inside. Just what was happening to this town? Where had everyone gone to?
That matatu took painstakingly long to fill up, something that usually took a couple of minutes on a normal day. And when we eventually took off and joined the highway it was too smooth a cruise because there were no vehicles in sight. I was wondering if I had been transported to another town in my sleep. This surely was not the Nairobi that I knew. The usual noises of Nairobi seemed to have gone on holiday and left their ghosts behind to roam the city.
The silence followed me as I roamed the streets. In all the years I had been living in this city I had never seen Tom Mboya Street looking that naked on a weekday, with all the shops closed, the pavements bare save for bands of street kids or families sleeping in their dirty blankets and jackets, with their glue bottles stuck to their noses. The street was a mgongo wazi skeleton, stripped bare of its filet. I roamed the city, looking for a place that was open, and which had cheerful patrons inside so that I could get in and sit and order something and be normal again. But it would seem like there was no escaping the silence. It wrapped itself around me and followed me like a swirling cloak through the deserted streets of downtown Nairobi.
Eventually I found myself back at the matatu stage, popped inside the very mat that had brought me without being hustled by the touts, and settled for another long wait for it to fill up. There was only one place to go now; back to that smoky pub above the bridge and wait for the day to pan out. Maybe something interesting would pop up. As for now I would switch off my phone and wait. I didn’t want anyone else to call me from the village with the noise of the revelers in the background. I particularly didn’t want the kids calling me to ask me if I had reached Nakuru yet. That cut like a knife. I was shutting my mind out and just sitting there like an urban statistic on a bar stool.
That is basically how my 2015 Christmas and Boxing Day drifted past; in this dream-like trance that had no proper definition in the English language. And although I later managed to travel on the 28th, it all felt like going to a party where all the food has been served and the hostess has to scrape the pots to lump something together for you. There was no longer any soul in that Christmas when I eventually landed in Kakamega with my bags full of expired Christmas gifts.