Friday, October 27, 2006

Should’ve Bought the Fourth

I took the night train to Nairobi a few weeks ago with Shinita and Tony. When we tried to book a sleeper cabin for ourselves – two women and one man – we were advised to buy the fourth space (a cabin sleeps four) if we wanted to stay together, because putting a stranger in our mixed-gender cabin might make that person feel uncomfortable. If we didn’t pay for the fourth spot, they would put us in different cabins and we would have to stay with strangers, albeit of the same sex.

“It’s just a trick to make the mzungus pay more,” we said. “There’s plenty of space and we’ll be able to move into the same cabin after we leave the station.” It was kind of like the stadium seating mentality for a losing baseball team. Wait a few innings, then move from your cheap nosebleed seats to the more expensive empty seats on the first baseline.

“No need to buy the fourth spot.”

Shinita and I went to put our luggage down in the cabin we were sharing. There were already two large mamas, a nine-year-old boy (kids are never counted as people on transport vehicles), tons of luggage and a heavy layer of ripe, rather putrid body odor in there. Shinita and I looked at each other and heaved a mutual sigh.

We hurried out and went to Tony’s cabin to assess whether we’d be able to stay there. There was only one other passenger in his cabin, a respectable-looking, unscented older man with one small bag. Sweet. We were both thinking the same thing – we’d be staying in Tony’s cabin tonight.

The cabin mate immediate struck up a conversation with us as the train pulled out of the station in Kisumu. He was a university professor in Nairobi, obviously well-educated, but with that weird inferiority complex that compelled him to want to have deep, philosophical conversations with any mzungu he met.

Sometimes Kenyans who have traveled or studied abroad exude this nervous eagerness to talk to mzungus, and it always has an undertone of needing to prove that they’re educated. It’s like they’re saying, “I know you white people think Africans are ignorant, but don’t assume I’m just like all the rest.” It often leaves me feeling awkward and guilty, because I’ve suddenly been cast as a dual agent of someone’s inadequacy and subsequent self-affirmation.

And tonight we just didn’t feel like discussing The Evolution of Gender Roles Among the Nilotic Peoples: From the Pre-Colonial Era to Post-Modernism with this man who was obviously more intelligent than all three of us combined. We just wanted to eat crackers and cheese and quote lines from American movies.

“Maybe we should have bought the fourth spot,” Shinita said. Tony and I nodded, our mouths full of turkey cold cuts.

Several hours later, the conductor brought two more men into the cabin and announced that they would also be staying in there. The two men eyed us suspiciously. Shinita and I were beginning to lose hope for an odor-free night of sleep. We didn’t want to go back to our two-mamas-and-a-boy sleeper cabin.

“Are you sure there’s no room for them in any other male cabins?” we asked. The conductor nodded, but we weren’t so sure. Shinita and I decided to conduct our own investigation by walking the length of the sleeper car and peering into each cabin.

It was no use. All the cabins were full.

“Should’ve bought the fourth,” Shinita said.

The three of us went to the dining car to review our alternatives, which were dwindling to nothing, and because some of Tony’s cabin mates were looking sleepy. We also wanted some privacy from the hyper-philosophical professor, who didn’t seem to be getting sleepy anytime soon. Strangely enough, he seemed to materialize out of nowhere as we were sitting down at a table in the dining car.

“I’ll join you,” he said, with a look on his face like he was eager to ask us what we thought of The Role of Christian Thought In Traditionally Animist Societies and Its Impact on the Legacy of Female Genital Mutilation.

“Should’ve bought the fourth,” Shinita muttered.

5am. I was jolted awake by a familiar yet disturbing sound. I was too groggy to remember what it was right at that moment, only that whatever it was woke me up. I looked out at the blackness and tried to catch glimpses of the room I was in. Where was I?

The train began to move and it came back to me. I looked across the cabin at the Shinita-shaped lump of blanket, then noticed how certain odors can have physical weight in tightly-enclosed sleeper cabins. Should have bought the fourth.




I looked across at Shinita again to see if she was hearing the same thing. “There’s a cock outside the window,” I mumbled, to everyone in particular.


“There’s a cock outside!” I said again.


“No,” Shinita said, finally awake. “It’s in here. It’s in our room.”


She was right. It was in bed with the mama sleeping in the bunk below me.


It was also in bed with a second cock. “Not the kind of cocks we’d like in our beds,” Shinita would later say.


“Ma’am,” Shinita said to the mama. “You’re gonna have to take that outside.”

I grinned into my pillow. Good old Shinita, telling it like it is.


The mama below me started to move around, and the two roosters started clucking indignantly, protesting being stuffed into a bag. “BAWK! BAWK BAWK BAWK!” Oh, God, she’s going to break their necks, I thought.


Apparently, being tied up, stuffed into a bag, and thrown into a corner of a sleeper cabin on a moving train doesn’t stop a rooster from crowing. “Bok bok bok bok bok,” they said, in between crows.

“Bok BOK bok bok bok bok,” I said, and Shinita snickered.


“COCKLE DOODLE DOO,” I said, proud of my unusual talent for imitating chickens. It was only funny until the fourth time, so they crowed for another hour, unaccompanied by me.

“Look, ma’am,” Shinita said, an hour later. “This is completely inappropriate. Remove those chickens from this room right now, please.”

“They’re not my chickens,” the mama said. “They belong to my friend and I don’t know where she’s sleeping.”

Oh yeah, I left out one part of the story. While we were trying to stake a claim to the two empty bunks in Tony’s cabin, a third mama tried to stake a claim to one of our bunks in the cabin we were originally assigned. The conductor had to chase her out, after he chased me and Shinita out of Tony’s cabin. It turned out that this third mama had only paid for a third class ticket (sleeping upright in regular train seats), not a more expensive sleeper car ticket, and was trying to sneak into the sleeper car.

“I don’t care whose chickens those are,” Shinita replied. “You let her leave them here, so you need to get them out of here.” The mama slowly rolled out of her bed, gathered up the chickens, heaved the door open (FRESH AIR! FRESH AIR!) and went to find her friend, the attempted bunk thief and chicken abandoner. Peace and quiet at last.

8am. “Good morning,” Tony was standing in the doorway of our cabin, looking well-rested. “How’d you guys sleep?”

We glared at him through puffy eyes and he started laughing. “What happened?” he said.

“Did you hear a rooster last night?”

“Yeah, it was outside the train.”

“No, it was in here. Two of them, in this room.”

“Should’ve bought the fourth,” he said.

8:15am. “Gawd, something STINKS in here,” Shinita said.

9:30am. “Excuse me,” the mama with the little boy said. She seemed annoyed with us in general, but spoke to me timidly. “I’m going to change him now. Is it okay?”

Change his clothes? I thought. A nine-year-old boy can’t change his own clothes? But I gave her a friendly shrug and said, “Sure, go ahead.”

The mama laid the boy on his back and yanked down his pants. Suddenly everything became clear. The odor whose fetid warmth we had been enveloped in all night as we tried to sleep through crowing roosters, and whose intensity had been growing for the last hour, was coming from the boy. The boy’s diapers, to be exact.

“Should’ve bought the fourth,” Shinita sighed.


Blogger jke said...

Pole sana!

Now that's one of the reasons I opted for my placing to Embu (instead of going to Kakamega as suggested in the first place). => 2hrs drive from Nairobi, and I course get to seat in the front row of that shattooool matatu. Mzungu bonus?

The oduor sure is the worst thing about travelling. And my smacking colleagues while eating Githeri :-)

11:21 PM  
Blogger Justina said...

Hey jke I checked out your blog, it's great. Love the picture of mikate! It's the supermarket version of the seven mamas sitting in a row all selling the exact same tomatoes and avocados. But if you introduced something different, like say broccoli, no one would buy it. Inelastic demand for the familiar kabisa.

10:03 AM  

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