Driving in Kenya

November 23, 2009 – On Driving

Silly me to make the mistake of not wearing a sports bra in preparation for our trip to Nairobi. What was I thinking? There are 6 of us on our way to Nairobi right now, and rather than “splurge” for two cabs (~$15/person for a 1.5 hour drive – extravagant, huh?) we hired a bus for the day.

Let me paint a picture: 2 seats at the front for driver and passenger, and 4 rows of 3 seats each for us poor unfortunate souls in the back. Although, I think that I prefer the backseat to the front, as at least I am shielded from the road and the multiple games of chicken played by our driver with oncoming traffic. The only thing separating our feet from the pavement below which our tires are flying over at 80KM/hr is the metal floor. This van is no frills attached. Oh, except of course for the blue and gold curtains adorning the windows. When I first got in the van, my instinct was not to buckle my seatbelt, as I felt it would be to my benefit if my body was thrown from the vehicle in the event of a crash. However my better judgment told me that a thin strap of nylon may be the only thing that prevents me from cashing in on my expensive travel medical insurance – an expense that I hope proves unnecessary. However, the state of this seatbelt is not as reassuring as I would have hoped.  While at one time it may have passed safety standards as a proper passenger restraint, the current state of the strap is only a mere whisper of what it once was. The part where one normally adjusts, with a bit of effort, the tightness of the strap, is missing, so it is really just one long strap looped in 2, with no way of tightening it. But, I suppose, the attempt at safety should still count for something, no?

After a short drive in the van, we got out to grab some necessary sustenance for the road – bottles of water (not too many though, because on these jarring roads, even a half full bladder can quickly become an issue) and multiple bars of chocolate.  I’m not sure what it is about these English folk I’ve been hanging out with, but they can each easily devour 5 bars of Cadbury chocolate a day, so a trip to the store for chocolate becomes as critical as oxygen. Upon my return to the van, I came to the realization that my seatbelt would no longer latch in the base. Short of little seatbelt elves sneaking in and messing with my latch, I am baffled as to what could have happened in the 10 minutes I was out of the van that would incapacitate my seatbelt in such a way. I’m in a bit of a pickle now I suppose, but, *light bulb,* my once good for nothing fat person seatbelt comes in handy, as I can stretch it to the clasp of the seat next to me, creating one large seat, and securing me marginally better than my previous arrangement. Now as to whether or not I feel any safer, I’d rather not say…

It’s amazing to me that this van smells as terrible as it does, considering there is nothing contained within it to absorb an odor.  The chairs are covered in a vinyl upholstery slipcover, which feels great against my sweaty skin – peeling my arm off of the back of the seat is reminiscent of peeling my pre-approved credit card from the top of the American Express application I received in the mail.

I decided to pull out my computer and put on my music on the drive to distract myself from the speed at which we are traveling, and the frequent jarring swerves the driver makes to avoid and or/overtake donkeys, bicyclists, sedans and small children. Unfortunately there is only an hour left on my computer battery, and probably less on my iPod, 30 minutes less than our total trip. Hopefully we’ve made it to the city by then, and putting my computer out of sight of passersby would be in my best interest; although I suppose I could always just draw the curtains…

But back to  my need for a sports bra. Let’s say approximately 33% of the roads in Kenya are paved. Approximately 10% of the ones I have been on since arriving in Kenya have been smooth. I’m seriously concerned for the health of my chest; I have visions of stepping out of the van and hearing the splat of my boobs on the pavement 4 feet below.  I’m no expert on cars – really, I don’t know what makes them run aside from gas, but I DO know that there’s no way the cars I have driven in over the past few weeks are built to withstand this kind of abuse. Yet somehow they do.  Calling the roads riddled with potholes would be a generous understatement.  Calling them roads at all is a significant overstatement.  Especially the dirt ones; at anything faster than 5 mph, the car runs the risk of losing its floor to the red clay threatening to break through at any moment. Shocks, I think they’re called, do not exist on cars driven in rural Kenya. Hence, the splat of my boobs on the pavement.

This is all not to mention the steep drops on the sides of each road.  Too far to the left or right, and our van is tilted dangerously to the side, forcing me to hold on to the reassuring bars on the windows to avoid rolling over altogether.

As I type, over the volume of my iPod (I swear, I will leave Kenya with shattered eardrums for all the times I put the earphones on maximum volume to avoid one unpleasant sound after another), our van is beeping, or getting beeped at, by a much larger “mutatu” (basically, the buses that people use to get around – maybe the size of a Gladiator van, but with twice as many people packed in as should be) as it passes us on the ever present dotted yellow line.  That is perhaps what scares me the most about driving in Kenya, the passing of other cars, regardless of size and speed of travel.  It’s as if drivers are playing a perpetual game of “my penis is bigger than your penis and let me prove it to you by passing you on the road regardless of the peril it puts my engine and passengers in.” Like, really, is it necessary to play this back-and-forth passing game? Is your life and the lives of others worth that little to you?

During my time in cars in Kenya, I have realized that in order to not have a panic attack every time I strap (or don’t) myself in, I have to just kind of let what will be, be. I have to just put my life in the hands of the driver, and trust that he has been doing this long enough to not kill me.  This is not a particularly valuable way to treat my life, but I would probably leave this country with a serious anxiety problem if I worried about every possible crash that we avoid by sheer luck on each journey. As a matter of fact, I just looked up out the front windshield and was rewarded with the heart-stopping threat of a massive head on collision. Silly me for disobeying my own cardinal rule of driving: DO NOT WATCH THE ROAD!!

While on any other car ride, a nice way to pass the time might be to look out the window and enjoy the scenery – on a car ride in Kenya, looking out the window almost makes me with I were Catholic, so that I could finger my rosary beads in prayer. I’ve found it’s best to occupy oneself with a book or crossword and run the risk of contracting a headache or nausea than to look out the window and run the risk of contracting a pulmonary embolism….



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