Midnight approached. White station lights flickered about the stale concrete platform as The Lunatic Express, which would rumble me from Nairobi down to Mombasa on the last remaining stretch of the historic East African Railway, chugged into the station. I was told to expect a late departure. The train, gradually relegated over the past century from crowning symbol of British imperial triumph to dilapidated tourist attraction, was not known for its punctuality.
And so my fellow Anglo passengers and I boarded first and second class, and so the rest boarded third, and so I was shown to my private quarters, where I would lay awaiting departure until just after 3 a.m, when the whistle blew, and the metronomic thud of the engine grew ever louder and faster, and the lights of Nairobi station dimmed into the distance.
In Mombasa, 1896, the British began work on a rail line that in their imperialistic vision would ultimately stretch deep into the African interior, cementing their place as a key player on the recently partitioned continent. Seven years, 2,498 worker deaths, and roughly one billion British pounds later, the single-track line reached its initial terminus of Kisumu, on the northeastern shore of Lake Victoria. The Uganda Line, as it would eventually be called, represented Western mastery over the uncivilized Dark Continent, a stark manifestation of its superiority in all things.
And so went that old colonial arrangement. And so the train rumbled onward.
Some older friends took a gap year before college and imbued me with all sorts of romantic notions of travel and adventure and casting off the arbitrary external constructs of a society of individuals too paralyzed by fear to carve their own unique path through the existential void or something like that. The idea – and I think it would prove to be a good one – of my gap year was that it would be divided into distinct and unique chapters of varying structure, length, and spirit. “Novelty!” That was the word! Bounce here! Live there! Meet a friend here! Try this there! Settle down here! Granada! Cadiz! Le Barte! Paris! Zurich! Kenya! Ho!
Limits would be pushed and barriers would be broken; each destination would place emphasis on a new and different aspect of the character, develop and build it, define and bulk it – all of it – until the whole was so great and immense and rounded that perhaps, finally, ultimately, my form would match my projection. Maturation expedited, irony would no longer serve as a crutch, a safety net, for earnest expression and behavior. Because it wouldn’t be necessary. With a comfort zone as big as the moon, insecurity and fear would be but hollow echoes of a time when chaos held the keys.
I was not nervous on the plane to Frankfurt. I ordered a beer and I read all of Einstein’s Dreams, which is a short novel about time and all weird forms it might take. Seats D through G in row 32 were empty so I lay across them, mildly irritated at how the edges of each seat curved up slightly into some area of my rib cage or my hip. I wore my red and blue hat and my tan zip-off travel pants (zipped on) from REI. It will be a very nice year, I thought. It will go fast and I best be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.
My berth on the train was positioned such that when I looked out the window, I could see only sky or perhaps those natural beings of sufficient might and majesty to share its domain. I awoke expecting that at this stage we would be blasting down through the southeast reaches of Tsavo National Park, surrounded by smooth red hills, giraffes, acacia, sinewy gold gazelle running outwards under the train’s mighty roar. I would but sit there; take in Kenya’s fruitful bounty as it drifted right on by.
The train’s morning horn blared and I sat up. We weren’t moving. My quintessential Kenyan landscape was flowered with rusty industrial buildings. There was no engine roar.
I shuffled to the toilet at the end of the car, locked in my aim such that I would hit exactly through the hole in the floor and onto one of the track’s steel girders, and then continued back a few cars more to the dining car in the middle of the train. A Scandinavian couple beamed at one another on the far side of the car, and across from them, a Kenyan family and the daughter’s partner (who wore a fitted black Yankees cap) spoke in English of a recent Manchester United victory.
I sat alone far away, and brought out my book and my journal. The waiter approached, offered me coffee. “Where are we?” I asked. “What time will we be arriving in Mombasa?”
“Mr. Schwartz, it won’t be long at all,” he said.” We’re just waiting for a cargo train to pass. We will be in Mombasa by 4:00 this afternoon.”
“Where are we now?”
“We’re still in Nairobi.”
One odd wrinkle in that perverse commodification of authenticity, which no traveler can fully keep from subconsciously embracing, is the inevitable reversal of the notion itself: I sought authentic relationships with “locals,” only to find that more often than not, the fleeting relationships I built were founded more upon the fact of my own novelty as a white American than any particular internal quality which I actually possessed.
I remember going out to Sporty’s my very first night in Nanyuki, and inhibition’s gradual cessation to awkward gyration, and Myles jokingly telling a still-stateside Matt that I fell in love, and Matt’s mortified phone-call of warning that Sporty’s is full of sex workers and gold diggers hot on the prowl for a strapping white lad such as myself.
Or botellon in Granada, and dressing up in Jose’s pink button-up and white blazer, and putting gel in my hair, and strutting on down to what would ultimately be a parking lot littered with vomit mines to be carefully avoided, and Jose’s beyond gorgeous friends (such is Granada), next to whom I mostly did that thing where you rigidly stand by two people who are in conversation, occasionally nodding your head such that you might appear to outsiders to be also engaged in said conversation. I could not have behaved in an objectively less cool manner. Yet every time a new friend of Jose’s came by, those who had met me would all, bright sincere smiles across their faces, eagerly introduce me as their amigo Americana.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t relationships with real meaning, and which, more importantly, isn’t to say that these artificial relationships didn’t themselves have a sort of real meaning. But there’s a complexity to these superficial connections which shrouds the self with doubt; the person they see when they look at you isn’t really the person you think you are. The reasons, be they too much time spent with a warped mirror, or the other’s particular failure to consider your whole, are immaterial. Dust, inevitably, has been kicked to the sky.
Aporia, I’ve recently been told, is the state of intellectual bewilderment to which Socrates would, through pointed questioning, drive his interlocutors in the Platonic Dialogues. He saw in this process a purgative effect, and he appreciated the mental vacuum which subsequently forms: it’s only natural that curiosity gets tingling when formerly presumed knowledge is shown to be unsound.
Enter Gil, an organic farmer near Madrid. Also she was a Shiatsu Sensei and a deaf-child-English-teacher who taught the language by literally grabbing and shaping the tongues of her students to form sounds. Also she was a polyglot, and a communist Scotswoman, and she believed the moon landing was faked and that 9/11 was an inside job and that Bill Gates is evil made manifest and her energy pulsated and pounded like a bass into my own being such that I was literally uncomfortable sitting across from her at the dinner table. She was also a brilliant speaker, Christopher Hitchens good. She saw every bit of myself that was American: the presumption in the personal questions I asked, my milk and egg consumption, and with marked intentionality she deconstructed me, it, the ideas I took to be fact. That she would take the time to do such a thing I learned to take as a compliment, but always it made me angry, and sometimes furious, and often deeply insecure; as the Hitchensian idea goes, a life spent in refuge of the false security of consensus offers little preparation for the Gil’s of the world. Her husband Jorge would qualify all of his statements with “but that’s just my opinion.” Gil, unapologetically, would not. And so as I offered my piddling contributions to the house of straw within which she and Jorge would ultimately live, so too did she give something in return, though, so many months later, I’m still utterly flustered as to what exactly it was.
The Uganda railway was constructed to serve dual, reciprocally fulfilling purposes. The railroad made possible significantly cheaper raw material exports and manufactured imports; moving a ton of cotton from Kampala to the coast cost 90 pounds per ton before the railroad, and only 2.5 pounds per ton thereafter. In turn, the railroad promoted the influx of white settlers who would facilitate and oversee the operations though which such goods were moved. In securing easy access to Lake Victoria, Britain asserted control over the Nile’s source as well as a significant chunk of modern-day Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, and made the region its own.
Nowadays there is a different story around the East African railway system. It’s fallen on hard times, rusting away, now useful solely for its own nostalgia-imbued anachronistic qualities. There’s no money and there’s depreciating interest. Kenya, however plagued by bad traffic, insane drivers, and the resulting mangled matatu carcasses, moves by road.
But matatu carcasses mean human carcasses, and traffic means inefficiency and human carcasses. Not all are content with the current state of affairs. To some, particularly those who hold neo-colonialist ambitions, in such unrest lies opportunity. Early this year, the Chinese, who have been active-as-can-be in recent east African infrastructure projects, came to an agreement with the Kenyan government to finance a modern, double track, standard-gauge rail system. The British were not involved. Change tingles and zaps through the Kenyan air. Whether its form will prove linear or circular is yet undetermined.
The Lunatic Express started and stopped and started and stopped as we waited for freight trains to pass in the opposite direction. I drank Tusker, I ate chicken, I wrote in my journal, I read. I retired to my quarter. It was hot. I couldn’t sleep. Sweat condensed in my nether regions. Another Tusker. BaoBao elephant trees gradually claimed an established place and frequency across the red land. Another Tusker. I stuck my head out the window when the train really got going, and, like Leo DiCaprio in Titanic, my golden, soft hair swelled and crescendoed in the warm passing wind. I looked back and out and forward and could see the engine car rumbling along whenever the train rounded a bend.
I pulled myself in and jumped, startled to find myself face to face with a buxom beautiful train employee. She smiled. I, embarrassed at this intrusion into what was supposed to have been a private indulgence, abruptly turned away down the train to my quarters. “How do you like Kenya?” she called after me. I stopped. My right nostril snarled and my left eye twitched. The question, as I then interpreted it, oozed with condescension. “I like it just fine,” I snapped, whirling around to face her. “I’ve actually been living here for four months now.”
Early on in my time in Kenya, I found myself going out of my way to make clear to locals that, despite my skin color, I wasn’t, in fact, a “tourist;” that mzungu, the liberally-used generic term for white people, was in my case wholly inadequate. Indeed, the real truth was that at the moment, Nanyuki, Kenya was my home. Right in town! I didn’t just come for safaris and spear-throwing. I was practically a local! Sometimes I’d exaggerate the length of time I’d spent there, which, looking back, is a super weird thing to do. Of course this partly is just not wanting to get ripped off, whether by taxi drivers, or by vendors, who really do jack up their prices for naive tourists. But there’s something deeper at work too, perhaps that idea that me and you and everybody else are, by nature of our humanity, complex beings with dimension, depth, layers that no one even fully understands about themselves; that we’re the sum of our experiences, the manifest cumulative coherence of the otherwise incoherent relationships and situations that have formed our lives, and so it’s validating to have that complexity respected and demeaning to have it diminished.
Perhaps it would have been right and good of me to take note of the Senegalese dudes who squatted in the old caves above Granada, and who did their thang there (selling weed, smoking weed, and making jovial conversation with passersby) with a grace and generosity of spirit which rejected the caricature made of them by police who stopped in on a bi-weekly basis to get up in their business and demand their papers that they might be deported back from whence they came. They had bad ass caves, the best view in the city, and bright baggy colorful pants; all had led lives of depth and adventure; all had family and friends they dearly missed back home, and none gave a shit that no one recognized any of that when bitching about the “puta” Africans living in hill below San Miguel Alto. I had no such refinement in my ego. A grave offence indeed was the idea that I was a tourist, or even just an allusion to the fact of my whiteness, which carried within the implication that I’m not the nuanced, multi-dimensional, enigmatic motherfucker that I’d like to think that I am.
It’s relevant to note that I’m just reaching that age in which sheer (thought still paltry) quantity of real world experience aligns with and validates a to-this-point-latent smug self-assured arrogance, that age in which ideology begins the calcification process and loses any and all impressionability. I’ve never been more confident in my grand, sweeping opinions on the world. I always talk at the meta-level like an asshole. To so wholeheartedly possess schemes of such enormous proportion and be simultaneously dismissed by a random person who I don’t even know as a piddling tourist is mentally incongruous; delusion allows the brain to cope.
I wobbled about the train. A Tusker here, a Tusker there. I talked to the Swedes about regions of Sweden and drinks of Sweden and regions of Sweden again. The dinner, the waiter excitedly told us, was “on the house!” We chugged onward, eating cabbage and chicken and ugali, which is flour and water in sponge form.
Nebulous twilight-orange intensified to acute fire-red. As wind drafted through the dining car, yet unlit through color’s gradual taper into silhouette, the passengers returned to their quarters and the lunatic express thumped its charging headlight onward; the air felt light even as it dampened into the ever-approaching humidity of the Indian Ocean.
An adventure is its own distinct entity. There are adventures within adventures. A good book is an adventure. A good relationship is an adventure. A good conversation is an adventure. An adventure takes you to a place you do not know. It cannot be repeated. It is the distinct and temporary alignment of an order in which that minute piece of the universe over which you claim control interacts in a novel and unexpected way with another piece, and its purpose is to show you a new and interesting thing.
The happiest moments of my gap year were those in which I felt most cemented in a time and place, when identity and sentiment hinged not on future ambition or past accomplishment but on the singular human I was within the bounds of the chapter I was presently immersed – praying with the Senegalese friends as sun set over the Alhambra; stuffing hay into plastic bottles with goofy old Phillip; dancing through a power outage with Simama kids my last night in Nanyuki.
It’s all so random, so bizarre. There’s no order. Where is the order in a quilt of a million stitches, stitched by a million different hands, independent hands, uncommunicating hands? What could that quilt possibly mean?
“Mr, Schwartz, you have to go.”
“Because we cannot go farther.”
“Because the train will not.”
“The train will not.”
“Well are we there?”
“So how do I get there?”
“But because you are a mzungu, they will charge you lots of money.”
“I will go with you to find a matatu.”
“Ok.” Can I eat here first?”
“No. There’s no more food. But I will go with you to find a matatu.”
The train employee smiled. He thought this a generous proposition. And perhaps it was. It seemed unlikely that in the Kenya Rail job description was a clause accounting for a case such as this. The air was heavy. Already twenty-three hours later than the scheduled arrival time and still we weren’t there. But the flavors and smells clung to their respective affiliated sense with a certain potency; Mombasa was near.
I closed the door and changed into my travel shorts and Roshe Runs. I unstrew my apples and sweaty clothes and books, jammed it all into my red backpacking backpack. Threw my electronics into my Rick Steves travel bag, lugged the red pack up to my back and slung the travel pack in front, and squeezed out the sliding door of my room into the hall. I jumped down into the mud below the train. We were in a train yard and mist and damp shrouded the far rails. The train employee sipped on his 9:00 AM Tusker. “The stage is over there,” he said. “Come, follow me.”
The train appeared to be empty. The Swedes had left. The people in the back had left. I was the last to go.
We ambled over the tracks and into town. We slipped through mud between wood storefronts out to the paved main road, where matatus and lorries swerved to and away from the great east African port.
A matatu whizzed by and the young bald guy yelling destinations out of its window saw the train employee and tapped the roof of the matatu and yelled for the driver to stop.
The train employee and I ran down the road after it. He had only his beer to carry, so he got there first. He mumbled something to the matatu destination-yeller, and they kept saying mzungu and giggling and glancing my way as I heaved and scurried myself and all of my stuff along the road to the waiting matatu.
“Mr. Schwartz, Mombasa is that way,” said the train employee, pointing down the road with his beer bottle. “He will take you there.”
“Very good price,” added the destination-yeller. He wrestled me in through the door by my shoulder straps. The single open seat was in the back; the matatu was full of morning commuters. They held my center of gravity onboard as the destination-yeller tapped the ceiling and the matatu shot forward and my legs, still dangling out the door, were thrust back under the force. I squirmed towards the back, traversing about and above the passengers until I plopped down in the empty space between two poorly postured old guys.
They smiled, teeth spotted brown. I smiled back. “Hello,” I said. “We’re going to Mombasa?” (I’d learned in Uganda that it’s best to double check). The old guy to my right nodded. “Mombasa,” he whispered. And on we drove. Shack towns grew ever more dense, frequent. Some, their traits compounded in the humidity, smelled of damp old egg. The man held his smile. I stared forward. I wondered what he thought of me. In this moment was I not simply a fella, just like him, making my way east to the Kenyan shore? In what ways did we differ and in which were we the same? In retrospect, I may have been overthinking it. I was his mild morning amusement and little more, just another skinny aporetic mzungu, curiously fiddling about.