29 November, 2006

Kenyan Bandit Country.

I don't know whether it was what Cathy had told me or it was just my perception but the people in the South of Ethiopia had something of a threatening 'edge' to their shouting. There were more cars too, and tractors in the fields - I hadn't seen those in the north. More wealth generally all around.

At the last hotel in Ethiopia I was told "Firenjy [foreigners] pay double!" I laughed and smiled at this, paying 90Birr for a similar room to the one that had cost 40Birr the night before. I needed to get rid of my Ethiopian currency anyway and it was about time that I got ripped off by someone. I thought I could easily afford it until I found out, too late, that this rule extended to the restaurant and bar as well! By the time they'd opened the wine and told me the price, I hadn't enough left for food. Tough, it seemed. So I went through the daft rigmarole of moaning about how in Scotland this would be correctly termed 'racism' and it was all wrong, they must take the wine back and let me buy some food. But they must do no such thing at all and I could just drink the wine and shut my stupid, moaning firenjy face. So I did and I had wine for tea. Not exactly nutritious, but I'd had some fruit earlier.

I stopped next morning at a roadside cafe which had the rare novelty of a menu - with prices. I found I could afford an omelette, coffee and water. Not a bad breakfast. With no Birr left at all, I arrived at the border.

Leaving Ethiopia was not quite the same joyous experience as coming into the country but still fairly straightforward, fewer smiles but still no guns.

A little man in a leather jacket approached offering to 'help' and get me some Kenyan Shillings. I didn't much like the look of him so I looked up 'the book' and found he was offering a lot less than he should. I went about my business and left him alone. He followed, and I wasn't rude but I was tired and tried to ignore him as best I could.

Formalities complete I crossed into Kenya. After things were concluded on this side (lots of smiles and uniforms) I asked about the banks. They had closed only 15 minutes ago. Luckily, loitering outside was my pal with the leather jacket. Tired from the day and lack of nutrition, I changed 30GBP for 100Ksh/Pound, so he gave me 300Ksh. Taking the money, I went to look for a place to sleep. At the Police station where the Nicks had stayed I asked if I could camp. No problem. The kindly policeman then told me about the price of food at the Police canteen, where I was welcome to eat. But it couldn't be 85Ksh just for some chips! That was 8.50GBP!! slowly, slowly it dawned on me. The little guy had ripped me off - he should have given me 3000Ksh, not just 300!! I had barely enough for food, and he'd given me about 3quid for my 30! Well I was WIDE awake now! I rode back down to the border where the Kenyan Authorities allowed me to re-invade Ethiopia. There wasn't much hope of getting my money back but I could at least warn the Ethiopians about this guy. The guard on the other side insisted we looked for him. To my surprise we found him AND he gave me back most of the money. I had already decided that if he gave me back it all, I'd give him something back for his 'honesty' and for my stupidity. But he wanted to keep 300Ksh as 'commission'. With little alternative, I confirmed with him that he would be quite happy to sleep soundly with his decision and not suffer overly from guilt, and then walked back to the bike. Not too bad - I now at least had enough for food, shelter and to pay for the truck in the morning.

When I went to buy some food at the wee shop, I was amused when the lady at the counter said "50 Bob"! I knew they used shillings but had no idea they'd call them 'Bob' like we used to. I don't remember too much about Lsd, but I was a Cub Scout doing "Bob a Job Week" well after decimalisation.

I had been told that it would be wise, because of the washed-out muddy roads, for me to put the bike on a truck for the journey to Marsabit. With the front wheel bearing chirruping like a troupe of demented sparrows, this seemed wise indeed. And there were bandits out there! The last thing I needed was a collapsed bearing in Bandit Country!

I managed to get the price down from $150US to $50, rode the bike onto the truck in front of a huge and appreciative audience, bowed dramatically to much applause and climbed onto the top of the cattle truck. There were no cattle but a comfortable seat was not an option as there were no seats at all. The truck was full of teenage schoolchildren going home after their long term at school, some ladies who had been trading across the border, and me. There were some bars across the top of the truck in a sort criss-cross pattern which would support a tarpaulin from suffocating the cattle. This tarp had been drawn back so that we human passengers could make ourselves comfortable on the bars. It was exactly like holding on for your life as the driver did everything a bucking bronco could do unseat us all. I couldn't believe this was an accepted mode of transport. Meanwhile the bike rattled around below me and I began to get very worried.

40km (25miles) down the road the truck's clutch-cable snapped. Aren't they all hydraulic now? While we waited I got chatting to Paur, a Kikuyu from Nairobi who had been in Moyale mending and servicing photocopiers for the government. He explained that these were all Borani people who liked nothing more than to argue with each other. As a Kikuyu he was as much a foreigner on the truck as I was and would have to avoid any involvement in the arguments if he wasn't to be thrown off and left in the bush. His English was excellent and, as we were of a similar age we enlisted one another as friends almost immediately. He had been in the back of the truck, trying to keep out of the dust. It took hours for the clutch cable to be mended during which several of the kids jumped on passing trucks to get home earlier.

We got another 40km before we came to a huge truck-eating mud puddle. I'd heard of these but always thought them to be wild exaggerations. On a fully-functioning bike I could have made it if I'd kept closely to the sides. I'd have fallen off loads of times but there were lots of people only too happy to laugh at the daft mzungu and then help. A truck had become bogged down in the middle and was sinking fast. Other trucks and mini-buses and a couple of 4WDs waited patiently for the road grader to pull it out. After an incredible amount of shouting and not much happening it was pulled out and the other trucks took turns at ploughing up the puddle. Some knew what they were doing and slowly chugged through on low revs. Others, learning nothing from their more careful colleagues, took a run at it and quickly got stuck and had to be pulled out by the grader again. Once out all waited on whichever side to see how the rest got on. It was already getting dark when the truck before ours dived into the puddle, screaming its engine and then, catching a very big rut, teetered for a moment, engine screaming, before slowly falling over with a great splash. The passengers had already got off so nobody was hurt. Just the driver's pride. It wouldn't sink because he had got as far as one side of the puddle. The road was now completely closed because the grader had no lights. The truck would need to be unloaded by hand in the morning and then righted using ropes. All the other trucks would stay the night, even though they didn't need to. "The bandits may come and we will only be safe if we are many more than they." But I wasn't to worry, bandits had struck a convoy last night and probably wouldn't come tonight. Also they usually didn't rob mzungu (whites) because they had great respect for the work they (NGOs and charities) did. I felt a bit left out, and something of a fraud. The people from the fallen truck were to sleep in ours since we'd lost so many passengers during the breakdown. This was really unpleasant since among our cargo were some poorly sealed drums of paraffin. That stank enough to sting eyes and lips. Then they closed the roof to keep out the rain, even though it wasn't raining! Paur and I decided to sleep on the roof of the truck. I had anti-mosquito spray and at least there we could breathe!

People were jammed in so that they could not stretch out but they laughed at our daftness as we climbed onto the roof. It was noisy up there with croaking frogs in the swamp all around, but we could see the stars and breathe at last.

In the rush to get onto the truck that morning I'd missed breakfast. Few of our fellow passengers had eaten either since the promised lunch stop was another 80km further on, beyond the giant slithery rutted puddle of doom. A woman in our truck had a box of biscuits that she might sell at the right price. But she had to sell the whole box and nobody could afford that. She laughed when Paur and I offered to buy it and share it out. After some persuasion that yes, in fact we really would, it was sold to us, we took our share and gave the rest away to much more hilarity! We must be mad! All were at last happy that the Mzungu and the Kikuyu had done something useful, if crazy. The biccies were past their best and soft but they were food and tasted very good with fresh water from my thermos! Eventually I found a reasonable sleeping position and I dosed throughout the night, watching the progress of Orion whenever I woke.

No bandits came in the night and in the morning the truckers began unloading and righting the fallen truck. Neither had there been any rain so the puddle had dried a little and so each of the trucks bumped and slithered through.

The bike was very poorly 'secured' to the truck and I realised pretty quickly that I could easily have destroyed it for much less than the $50US I'd given these guys. I would have taken it off but, thinking I was being sensible, I had purposefully not filled up with fuel back in Moyale. The next petrol station was in Marsabit so I was trapped on the truck for the duration. No amount of girning or bawling would get them to reconsider the positioning or security of the bike. They had little regard for their own truck and so couldn't seem to understand why I gave my machine so much value. I tried to convince the owner of the truck that treating his property with some gentleness and care might mean it would last as long as mine had. I was whistling in the wind. He just laughed, 'but it would take so long!' My valuing of a machine was just foolish sentimentality. Who cares about machines? Well, not even me if I'm honest. It's more about the experiences they can provide you with, and the valuing of money thing instilled in me from birth by various role models!

We battered into Marsabit where I insisted on buying Paur his dinner. If it hadn't been for him explaining things to me all along, I would have gone mad with the frustration of all the useless shouting and nothing happening.

We found Nomad's which had hot showers. Paur was concerned I shouldn't get into any trouble in this unlit frontier town! I looked into the mirror and laughed, Paur and I were the same colour - both grey men from the dust of the road! Just as well for the dust too as my Factor 12 suncream wasn't nearly cutting it against the tropical sun!

refused first go at the shower and instead went off to his workshop to get himself cleaned up. I got in the shower fully clothed in the hope that some of the dust might rinse off. It did!
I was to collect the bike from the truck at 8am (2pm!) in the morning.


At 07/12/2006, 11:05, Blogger alf said...

That sounds like the biggest challenge you've written about so far. There's a lot of very positive feedback from my pals that are taking the time to read your story. They love the writing style. Glad to hear you got another camera. See the link to Roy's map of your progress under your 'Links'.

At 08/12/2006, 12:18, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mick,

At 10:30 today (08/12/2006) Nick and Nick have completed their challenge. They are having a beer in the Mount Nelson Hotel In Capetown.

Love your blog. It gives more background then ours.

Good luck.

Dutch Rob

At 11/12/2006, 08:11, Blogger Mick said...

Congratulations to the Nicks. How long will they be there for Rob? It would be good to 'catch them up' at last! Maybe when they get home and read through bits of mine they'll remember more themselves.

Aye, Alf, saw the map - very nice!!


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