Two years ago I was standing at a petrol station in Mtitu Andei watching passengers alight from the bus that had carried us from Nairobi. This was supposed to be the only stopover in a 600+ kilometers journey. There were two other Nairobi-bound buses parked along ours. A drunken attendant was busy splashing foamy water on the buses’ windshields and later clearing this with clear water. Old Kamba ladies were selling honey in small, refined glass bottles. I don’t remember the last time I tasted the thick liquid. While my life has its extremities I seem to deny my tongue the same occasions for indulging. I though about buying a bottle but I think I had just enough money to take me to my destination. A bus ticket cost me 700. Add another 200 bus fare from my home to town and for snacks. I waited for some time before I followed the trail of men into the public toilets. I have a fear of public toilets, you see. While other men shake and shake I’m always caught up trying to will the damn liquid out of me. And most men, like in reverence to some unspoken rule, will steal a surreptitious glance to see how I’m fairing. The pee scene from The Taking of Pelham 123 comes to mind. There was something distant about a town under the overhead sun, I could leave my life behind and settle at Mtitu Andei.
At the cafeteria I ordered white tea and mandazi. I should have ordered a proper meal but I was too broke to afford one. I sat alone, watching the other passengers make conversation. I had a lot on my mind.
I had not slept the previous night, being too nervous as is always the case before a long trip. I had been having bad dreams all week. I dreamt about leper colonies and black rivers, skin diseases and fairies laughing as I spiraled from rooftops. My Ma’ was a thousand miles away and my younger brother was away in school. I was left in a big, empty house where my pastime was imagining paintings of nudes on the white-washed walls. I needed to get away from the cloistered life. I needed a holiday where I could write. But more importantly I was going to see her. So on a Thursday morning I packed a few clothes and books and bought a ticket to a small town off the coast of Kenya. We were in Mtitu in less than three hours.
As I sipped on my hot tea I though about the long trip ahead. If only I could sleep and wake up at my destination. I had two books from the Macmillan library: a collection of Asian poems and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, tucked away in my side bag, together with a loose-leaf notebook, pens and a pencil I used for editing. Somewhere in the pages of that notebook there must have been poems from the past, poems that needed editing, but mostly pages that needed ripping up and burning, and obsessing over their ashes and embers as one does over past mistakes and regrets.
I did not own a laptop as yet and paper owned all my harried and confused thoughts.
Soon enough we were back on the road. I watched an expanse of country through my window, wondering if my seatmate would mind conversation before she fell asleep on my shoulder and started to snore. I envied her; I can never sleep during a long trip. So I let my mind fall into a state of half-consciousness where I choose a random object and obsess over it. I turn myself into a loupe. I don’t remember the object I chose at the time, maybe a shoe or a silver frame. Or parked vehicles. Sometimes I’d think about soapstone sculptures I had seen at exhibitions; how come they always made sculptures of people with long, slender joined arms? A question like this was sure to get me into a state where I’d forget myself. If I was not in this state I was listening to a song, on repeat, from a band I had fallen in love with – maybe Mozella – during that trip. The song would to acquire a different meaning later that year. Every song would. My playlist: Susie Sue, Michelle Featherstone, Turin Brakes, Counting Crows, Death Cab for Cutie, the Honorary Titles.
But sometimes I could not help it, I had to think about her; she came to my mind as clear as the god of water. I though about the things she loved, the curiosities of her body (which only a familiar person would know), her bad eyesight, her breath after kissing, her body in dim light. How many unwelcome appearances had she made in my work? And like an uninvited actor she kept showing up in my life and work , bowing before she left, always smiling that maddening smile. I missed the days of cotton and acetone and smearing coats of polish on her nails, days when we had little use for clothes. I was flung from this reverie by the fluttering of curtains as my seatmate had woken up and opened the window.
Most towns along the Mombasa highway are all alike: shacks of shops, a busy bus terminal, a broken city clock, transit tracks packet by the road, a small mosque with green and white walls. I accepted this uninspiring views and my mind was back to contemplating trivial things. I don’t know why I carried books, the rocking of the bus made it impossible to read.
The road after Mackinnon was terrible.
It was raining as we approached Mombasa. There was heavy traffic a few kilometers before the town. It was getting dark. I needed to be in town by 8 p.m. to get a mathree to another small town. Meanwhile tracks slouched in the middle of the road like toads in mock death, occasionally blurting their symphony of horns. There were four files of traffic in a two way road. I was developing a headache as it always happens when I travel without eating a proper meal. The worrying (I did not want to imagine paying for a hotel room in one of those unsafe corners of the city) and moisture-laden air in the bus made it worse. I was sipping soda from the bottle, hoping the sugar would assuage the headache.
Eventually I could see the dockyard and intense lights and I knew we were almost there.
I had a tuk tuk take me to the bus stop where if I was lucky there’d still be a mathree to take me to my small town. The driver was an impatient and careless man and almost got us knocked over at an intersection. There was heavy traffic within the city. I loved the mild hypnosis of light rain shimmering in the field of view of car lights.
I was lucky to get a mathree at the deserted bus stop. I had to pay a 100 extra as it is customary all over the country whenever it rains.
Ah, Mtwappa. The estuary of foreign-owned yachts. The strings of beaded lights in tourist resorts. And Mama Ngina drive! The black water as it engulfs the mangrove beach. The distant lights of tankers and cruise ships. Places that always leave a lasting impression whenever I see them. They are all there in my poems and thoughts. Like her.
Bamburi. I have an aunt who disappeared there to get married. She came back home without a husband and with two children, one who could only speak Kamba. I always expect to see her holding a baby in her arms, standing at the roadside like a Marian apparition and waving at me as I pass by.
An hour later. The endless dark of sisal fields. Charmless and scary. Once or twice a pedestrian illuminated by headlights, a cyclist, a dark figure dashing and leaping in the fields, maddened by the string quartets in his mind. This man is no different from me, I thought. And as we travel at 20 km/h above speed limit in a crowded mathree I wanted to get out of my clothes and skin and join him. I wanted to do something absurd and dangerous like in a play I read with a lover seen through a keyhole, taking off her skin.
Finally I made it to the small town, where I knew there was a creek, an estuary, long quiet beaches and abandoned dhows perfect for photographs. A place to write, finally.
She took me in her arms as easily as a child must fit in the premeditated embrace of a coffin. Her skin glowed like it was reflecting hints of a nearby and secret fire. She was not wearing her prescription glasses. Standing at her door, half in, I thought I could live in the sick specter of those eyes. She was only wearing a fading blue-white kanga, owing to the heat and humidity, her unbound flesh making clear its dimensions and intentions.
That night, talking to her in darkness, her arms around my waist like a cummerbund, listening to distant and near sounds – a genteel breeze, the rattling of shutters against the wire gauze of the window, the incessant flurry of a trapped insect, maybe the murmur of lapping waves, the fossilized breath of a continental shelf– I knew why I had traveled the miles, why it was so important to risk everything for an edge; this was life lived, my adjunct, the place between me and happiness. If I were to dream it would be about the living dead and their festivals. I knew I would have a lot to write about in the morning. I had tasted my hors d’oeuvre.