I do my best avoiding the still water filling the pots holes of the sidewalk and the street. My shoes and the cuff of my jeans are muddy.
The sidewalk is going about his business with vendors selling the ‘farmer choice” brand sausages filling their carts, shoe shiners wait for clients and readers are busy perusing the headlines of the latest corruption scandals.
I maze myself out of a puzzle of passenger vans, small and large buses taking every inch of the road.
My bladder pressing I swerve into the entrance of the public toilet and paid my five shillings to the cashier. The place is full of men squeezing elbows in front of a tiled wall … the urinal. The lack of privacy annoys me and the strong putrid smell of urine and feces choke me to the point of leaving without utilizing the service. My clothes feel stained by the stench.
I finally conquered the fastidious four hundred meters from Haile Selassie round-about through a bus station to reach the Nairobi Railway Station.
At the right of the entrance I see the office for the upper class booking. I smile at the sign and found the words pedant in a proletariat world. Africa is fond of pompous names and acronyms and it is the reason this one has outlive it colonialist past.
The woman behind the counter is nice, smiling and talkative, and upon her explanation I opt for a one way ticket to Mombasa, second class with bed and breakfast. The cost is 1,940 Ksh (less than US $25) for a 15 hours journey in the heydays of railways history. Yes, the train travels 500 km narrow tracks at an average speed of 35 km per hour. The TGV from Paris to Marseilles travels the 700 km in 3 hours.
A man tells me the trip is worthwhile since the rails go through the Kibera slums, the second largest in Africa, and the Tsavo National Park.
I am not too sure about the Kibera slum. I don’t believe that poverty should be an attraction dignified by touristic voyeurism.
It is 9:30am and departure is at 7pm. I take refuge on a white bench on platform 1, next to an underpass to platform 2 and 3. The platform is clean but shows wear from lack of maintenance. People do not use the underpass to get access to the other platforms. They simply cross the tracks.
The worn station subtly shows its history. The office of the station master reads Chef de Gare and Bahnhofvorsteher. The left luggage office is also the Bureau consigne des baggages and Gepaeckaufgabe.
On a far track I look at an old green diesel locomotive with yellow and red stripes. The conductor stops next to a group of eight idle men and up from his cabin chats a while with them and go ahead on its tracks.
I am getting bored and still need to relieve my bladder and walk toward one end of the platform and reach the second class lavatory for gents informing me that Nairobi is at 5453 feet of altitude. I enter and notice that dame as in the public toilet the squat latrines are still in use. The smell lingers but is not as bad as the public toilet and high altitude peeing has no effect on my bladder.
On the way back to my bench I visit the upper class waiting room. It is furnished with one large old wooden round table and a small sofa but the toilets are spotless clean with only a mild smell of urine. My nose has regained its primal instinct and now rates toilet’s adequacy by its scent.
Another green locomotive, on platform 2, comes into the station pulling 15 dilapidated passengers cars. None of the wagons have windows or doors. The train has an allegoric look, like a death trap waiting to grab the moment to a sordid fame.
The train is from Kahawa, which I am told is about 40km from Nairobi, and let his passengers off on the tracks.
It is 10:30am and now the station has activities. Men wearing green overalls marked Rift Valley Railway look under the carriage of each railway car while cleaners line trash cans in between the tracks.
At 11am another train pulls on platform 1 with slightly better cars maybe made in the 60s. The train is from Mombasa and one end let off its mostly white passengers and the other end the passengers from third class. All the passengers from third class are Africans. It is economic segregation.
Suddenly, I am the focus of attention. The private guards and workers in attendance on the platform are asking me questions. I have been here since early morning. They don’t understand what I am doing here on the white bench where I have taken refuge with my small backpack. I explained that I will be a fixture for the day since my train to Mombasa leaves in the evening. Everyone smile while I show them my ticket and my audience dissipates satisfied of my answers and leaving me wondering what was the fuss about. Don’t I look like a passenger?
It is noon and feeling stupid of all the interest I decide to walk to the railway’s restaurant. The doors are well shut and peeping through the grim windows I do not see any signs of activities. The thickness of dust on the tables and the furniture shows that the last dish was served decades ago.
I dread the idea but I decide to again fend off the activities in front of the station to have a meal in town.
I walk to Mama Ngina Street and decide not to eat at Java House or Dorman’s. Java house is an American style coffee shop full of idlers taking the best seats in the house. Dorman’s, in the same style as Java house, has a better etiquette but I am looking for food not for fast food or snack passed as food.
I cross the street to Tratorria, an Italian restaurant which has become a fixture in this part of town. The street terrace is full of idlers having a cup of brew to give importance to their never-ending non-consequential meetings.
I sit inside at a brown marble top table near a trio of important looking Somali men and a duo of South Sudanese.
The waiter gives the menu which looks like a novel and I order risotto with prawns. He brings a basket of assorted fresh bread and tomato bruchetta. The risotto is very good and the portion filling.
A well dressed man wearing a suit and an oversized tie take a seat in front of my table. The waiter comes and he orders without looking at the menu. He places his two expensive phones on the table ensuring they are seen but safe from thieves.
The idlers have also very nice suits. The labels are still sawn on the outer part of the sleeve jacket. One has a very large white square wrist watch with the dial studded with glittering diamonds. The diamonds must be glass. In Nairobi you show off only jewelry which can be stolen.
I have lost the strength to fight off the buses and people on the way back to the railroad station and negotiate a taxi fare.
I am now greeted with smile by the guards and the workers when I enter the station. I take back my place on the same white bench and as soon as I take comfort two cars marked BM security drive on the platform.
I look because I have never seen cars driven on railway platforms. I mean the cars drove on the walkway used by passengers and stopped not far from the police station at the far end of the platform to fetch, I assume, some valuable cargo.
As soon as they leave I walk toward the police station. It has a better appearance than the one I have seen in other part of Kenya. I smile at their ingenuity of storing disabled or acquired vehicles on the platform.
Actually, the station is void of vagrants and I do not see people using it as a shelter.
The station’s activities at the approach of the evening are increasing. More dilapidated trains come letting out waves of human cargo on the tracks. The platforms are filling with humans whose hands are carrying bags and heads balancing loads of whatever.
At exactly 6:30pm the Mombasa train pulls in the station and back-pack on my shoulder I look for coach 2305, climb on, squeeze in the narrow corridor and open the door to compartment A and slowly feels being sucked into the past.
My compartment is two large light-beige fake leather banquette facing each other and separated by a sink and each with a berth on top. The ladder to climb to the berth is above the door.
At exactly 7pm the train leaves Nairobi Railway Station for his 15 hours voyage to Mombasa. I am alone in my compartment.
The compartment is near the toilet and the passageway connecting to the other wagon.
I check the toilet and they are very clean but then they have squat latrine. I think that you must be endowed with extraordinary balance to use them without making a mess of yourself.
The train is noisy and sways and bounces like a car with bad shock absorbers. Also, from the compartment I hear a kitchen battery falling off a shelf, again and again in rhythm. I check and it is the metal door connecting the wagons. The door flaps in and out banging on the metal frame. I try to close it but the lock does not work.
Within a short time after departure a young man comes into my compartment with a large green bag. The bag has my bedding which he nicely lay out on a banquette. I lie down and enjoy the pillow. It is dark outside, I cannot see anything and as an adult I have never slept 15 hours. I can sleep with sound but I never slept with the noise of a door banging in and out of its metal frame.
I did not bring something to read.
I did not see anything interesting and 15 hours is very long but must admit that I enjoyed my adventure.
The trip back to Nairobi was exciting. A galloping giraffe was in a collision course with the train. I looked with my head outside the window awaiting the impact. The train stopped, the giraffe ran across the railroad track and continued her journey.
It took another 15 minutes for the train to start again but we all made it safe.