The Great Rift Valley
…iPod…Headphones…Passport one…Passport two…Laptop…
…Cellphone…Charger…Nikon…Olympus…Blue travel card…
Trudging down the open stairwell of the Bongo Hotel, I ran through a mental list of the important things (fully aware that iPod came to mind before passports) thus ensuring I had packed them all up. No one was at the front desk and the lights were off. I left my key on the desk, hoping the room had already been paid. Approaching the truck, a waning moon glared down from a clear sky. Sugge, the driver, was already preparing to depart.
We paired up with another company truck because, “the road [was] dangerous.” I asked why, and all he said was, “rivers.”
I was zonked out before we left Kitale.
When I woke the first time around, I wiped out dusty eye-boogers to reveal surroundings that were downright lush. We were in a valley and though the soil remained a rusty hue as the day before, over all the rocky hills, vegetation grew steadily and profusely. A river the same color as the dirt flowed violently over massive boulders. We forded the river once and continued descending though the rocky emerald hills. As we turned a corner out of this rich valley, we approached a forest of spindly trees whose leaves seemed to float weightlessly about their branches. A fairly modern bridge appeared in the distance as we drilled through the canopy. Ever so slowly our distance increased from the river and vegetation became less and less. We forded another river past a young man with a gun and one stuck, and one toppled big rig. Beyond the driver’s side of the window a range of mountains cascaded in the distance forwards and backwards as far as could be seen; telegraphing our route, and telling the story of the way we’d just been. As we progressed, the mountains loomed larger since any trees previously blocking their entirety ceased to be. As well, countless giant anthills, like saguaro cacti, towered over the low lying shrubbery.
After experiencing nothing but the cool breeze of the hills of Kenya, the 8:00 sun was became suddenly and surprisingly hot.
This was the Great Rift Valley. I didn’t know it at the time, but we would be wandering trepidatiously through this ever increasing strip of land for the next 12 hours
The road narrowed to a thin tarmac strip that was not much of a road as all, just a ghost lamenting the byway that had once been. No matter how smooth the dusty trail appeared, that decrepit ribbon of road was the best part to drive upon; even though the truck still screeched and squeaked and clanked and lurched at every moment.
We continued in this fashion for another hour until we arrived in a town called Kainugi.
Or something like that.
We devoured pan fried flat bread called chapati and sipped hideously sweet tea. I walked out take a few pictures and was immediately accosted by children offering to sell me some sort of stick or begging for money. “My friend!” they would cry. “Ten shillings!” more demanding alms, rather than pleading. It was hard, of course, because no matter how broke I happen to be, I am still probably richer than they could believe. Yet if I were to give them money, all I would teach them is that they can keep believing that a white man will show up and magically provide them with what they order.
We drove on for hours more and the vegetation became less and less. Even though we didn’t see a town for miles, we saw people and animals. People walking along the side of the road, barefoot or in sandals, kicking up dust as they gingerly picked their way across the rocks and eroded dirt. Men herded a myriad of goats while donkeys with coats shining silver in the hot sun carried packages on their backs. Turkana women in tartan togas knotted up to their deltoids and beaded necklaces stacked up to their chins also carried package, but on their heads. Young men carried sticks and little spool like objects that I think performed as a mobile stool. They would smile and wave at us. Some would motion reversely an Italian sumoning his matriarch in expression of marinara adorationIt seemed to mean feed me, give me help me. Some men would extend their index finger, the equivalent of protruding one’s thumb whilst standing along a highway in the US.
Sugge stopped for no one, only waving and smiling, displaying his large, slightly gapped teeth. He was a friendly man who shook hands just a little too long and seemed to truly love his job. The company paid for his ginger ale, and his meals, so he got shoe shines almost everywhere we went. I don’t think it was that he necessarily needed clean footwear, but more that he could afford it and was proud that he could.
And I think got a kick out me.
He would slow down as I took pictures out the window, despite my requests to the contrary since I didn’t want to be an inconvenience. He taught me a bit of swahili, made sure I would drink and/or eat everywhere we went, and when I did, that I’d had enough. He pointed out sights like a crocodile in a pond or women dancing in a large group in a village. He even laughed at my attempts at jokes despite our cultural and language barrier.
As the distance between towns became greater and greater, the sight of people became less and less, but livestock became more and more prevalent. Herds of camels branded with hash marks and circles roamed about aimlessly, their shepherd unseen amongst the brush. Goats and donkeys, their masters also hidden, ran out the way of the truck and looked up at its passing with nonchalance; only to return to gnawing at the few stubs of greenery to be found.
The presence of rivers was pre-empted by the site of leaves suspended about the limbs of trees in the distance. And trees foretold villages clustered about the river as well.
The dwellings of these towns were mostly twigs with thatched roofs offering little protection of the elements. These twig homes were surrounded by brush fences that kept the small naked children and chickens running around from wandering out of reach.
We continued driving and slowed to what I thought was a traffic jam. I leaned out the window and saw a man carrying his bicycle and boys wading and waving at us through what amounted to a large muddy puddle. Our companion truck ahead of us splashed in and got through no problem, but hit the brake lights after climbing back on dry land. The driver then immediately got out waved us to hold back. He checked his tires a bit and we sat in silence for a few minutes.
But we had sat in silence for most of the journey.
As the truck ahead of us moved forwards, we also drove into the mud and managed to get out just fine on the other side. But it was then that the cause of the hold up revealed itself. The road had been washed out in two places and two full trucks had become stuck in the mud. Local men were unloading it, hoping for a few shillings in return, I’d guess. The truck ahead of us revved its engine and pulled through tipping precariously as it entered the opaque brown plash.
We waited a moment, and Sugge revved the engine. He gave me nod of uncertain confidence, and dropped into gear. The fan gurgled and the murky water lapped up to the bottom of the windshield, as well as creeping in on the floor by my boots.
This truck didn’t have a snorkel.
It felt like we were diving head first into to the mire, but just as it seemed we’d sink deeper a topple forwards the cab bounced up, the pistons roared, and we pushed through. We immediately pulled over and let the engine dry out. I took a few pictures, climbed back in my seat and passed out until the next pit stop.
We stopped for lunch at about 2:00 and I had a coke, little bowl of soup, more chapati, and a plate of nyoma choma which was particularly greasy. Bits of chewy meat hung sparsely on small bones with large quantities of fat. After tearing and gnawing at a few bits, I noticed what I thought was human hair. Upon closer inspection I saw no follicles. I came to the conslusion that it was actually strands of fur. Cow fur, I hoped. I ate enough to be polite.
Washing my hands afterwards, I notice a boiling pot of water on a charcoal fire that had been covered when I cleaned up prior to the meal. It now offered, in plain view, teeth and the roof of a mouth of an animal. Presumably a goat as the it was too small for a cow. I thought for a moment, ‘What exactly was in that ‘soup’ I just ate?’ But I thought better of that particular thought and walked out front to take some photos.
The children begging was one thing. I basically ignored them. Instead of thank yous for candy, the reply was only more tiny, grasping hands. They had their whole lives to learn to provide for themselves and not to depend on handouts from weak-hearted strangers. As I walked to the truck, however, old men with large metal studs piercing the flesh below their bottom lip approached me. As if clutching invisible pens they motioned their hands towards their mouths and subsequently gestured similarly to their abdomens in a seemingly endless procession of profession of hunger. Their sunken cheeks only further accented their high cheekbones which mantled their cloudy eyes with heavy crow’s feet.
One man produced a blade, startling me at first, but gave a friendly glance so I wasn’t alarmed. At first I thought he wanted me to buy it. ‘No thanks,’ I smiled, waving no and good bye at the same time. But he kept it mostly sheathed and held it pointed at the ground, flat against his chest the way an auctioneers assistant might display a priceless text. I smiled—no, winced—and shook my head as I climbed in the cab while both men both looked up at me, their palms thudding softly on the door.
I realized as we pulled away that he had nothing to offer me, to sell me. So to show me a blade he owned, was all he could do in . I took a deep breath and focused on the seven hours we had left to travel.
The image of his hollow face, sparse teeth, peaked eyebrows, and bolted chin stayed with me for the next million miles. Why shouldn’t I given him 100, 500, 1000 shillings? What did it really matter to me? I could have emptied my wallet and fed him for a year. Instead I just got in the truck and didn’t to listen to my iPod through my Bose headphones out of guilt. I looked out the window more, snapping pictures of the scenery with my digital camera, wondering whether I did what was right. I mean, wouldn’t I just spend it on beer at some point anyway?
I guess I can’t really say why I didn’t give that man more than a smile and a shake of my head. I think it all felt kind of pointless, that I wouldn’t be solving anything: just a temporary solution to a continuing problem. A vagabond on the streets of New York, I think, has a choice, or had at some point. Isn’t it the American dream that a nobody can become a somebody? Somewhere along the line, I feel that the American vagrant gave up. Whether it’s true or not, all that life and liberty crap sure makes me think so. The support network of outreach programs and welfare and churches and private organizations leads me to believe there’s a way; that if I were put on the street in St Louis with no money or contacts, I believe I could get back on my feet with only the desire I have to live and work.
What I’m pretty sure of is that this man with his shiv didn’t and won’t have the opportunity of the American vagrant. What I’m not sure of, is whether or not I made the right decision.
We made out final stop hours later in Lodwa, just to get a coke. I gave away the last of my candy to the ungrateful children. The sun was still beating down turning my skin more red than normal.
Towards the end of the Great Rift Valley, we saw no towns, no animals, not much besides azure stretching from horizon to horizon, dotted with fluffy clouds bolstered by the spines of stratus clouds behind them, all framed by the purple mountains in the distance. We turned a corner around a hill and I saw the rain. A cloud like a jellyfish, bulbous and distended in the distance: a gradient of shades from its edges to its crest poured down great tentacles of rain to the veldt below. The closer we got, it didn’t seem to move: it just sat there, slowly lashing its tendrils ad the earth. Behind the cloud’s wispy appendages, the sun bled through creating a radiant diaphanous veil that silhouetted the prevailing vegetation.
The sky turned pink behind us, but the road kept disappearing beneath the truck. It was about 7:00 in the evening as we left the valley in darkness. We continued driving on into the night and I saw lights ahead in the distance.
“Is that Loki?” I asked with the eagerness of a child.
“No no no no. Loki…” his orbiculus oculi muscle constricted with thought, though he kept his eyes on the road.
“Loki 95 kilometers.”
“95?” I pleaded.
I laughed and stared at the road in the headlights. So did he. I don’t know if we were laughing at the same thing, but it only mattered, really, as we were still laughing together. Drops of rain began to smack into the windshield, and eventually the wipers marched. Not two minutes later, a rusted, beaten up, mangled road sign appeared in the headlights. It read, “Lokichokio: 95 km”
I asked the driver, how many times he’d done the drive and he sighed and shook his head.
“So many you can’t count? I offered.
“Can’t count,” he said. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew the potholes like a golfer knows the sandtraps on his favorite course
We arrived in Loki at about 8:30 and he walked me in to reception under a high thatched roof. I shook his hand and opened my mouth to speak, but he said ‘thank you,’ before I could. As I walked anxiously into the dining room to eat some food without fur, I came across my malted beverage appreciating roommate from the week before.
“Did you eat yet?” he asked.
“Gimme half an hour. Then we’ll get a tusker afterward.”
I was home again.