Backpackers Nirvana was a strange but well-meaning hostel. I walked in to the strong and somewhat sickly smell of charcoal burning incense, though the immediate offer of a cold beer caused rather conflicting first impressions in my exhausted mind. It is a self-proclaimed haven of spirituality, where you can enjoy ‘sundowns with free spirited kindred spirits’ or Lesley’s (the owner) ‘Holistic and Alternative Therapies’ (this taken directly from their website). I was also assured that Lesley was available for astrological advice, if need be. I smiled and nodded knowingly before placing all of my focus on my beer.
On the plus side, Backpackers Nirvana was just a 5 minutes walk from the beach, and I spent most of the next day there. The water was incredibly warm, understandable given that Mombasa lies by the Indian Ocean, and small wooden fishing boats lazily dotted the shimmering horizon. The locals I met were incredible friendly: I played beach soccer with some kids before receiving free “first aid” after I managed to step on a sea urchin when back in the sea. It turned out that the “first aid stall” (the quotation marks are intentional) doubled as a tour adventure company, such that the two men who were yanking the spikes out of my foot simultaneously attempted to convince me to go stand-up paddle boarding with them. I gently refused – I had a train to catch.
I caught a tuk-tuk across town to the train station to find that I was three hours early. By this point, I had come to expect long waits (I dare anyone to try and test my patience now – I am unbreakable). In the meantime, I bought a second-class cabin ticket, soundlessly ecstatic that I wouldn’t be repeating the experience on the TAZARA in Tanzania, and stocked up on mangos and nuts for the journey ahead.
We, meaning me and the 10 other passengers, boarded at dusk, around 7pm. I had the cabin, containing two bunk beds looking out of a smeared, dirty window, all to myself, with a very welcoming family next door. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect set up. Within two minutes, there was a knock on my door.
“HELLO!” A man bellowed enthusiastically at me.
“HELLO!” I bellowed back, matching his enthusiasm.
“MY NAME IS PAUL!” He had the widest smile I’d ever seen.
“MY NAME IS SIMEON!”
“GREAT!” He calmed slightly. “Where are you from?”
“South Africa,” I replied with a smile.
“Ah! Great! We love South Africans!”
“Great! I love Kenyans!” This man’s energy was infectious.
“Great!” By this point, the young girl poked her head out of the door next door, giggling at the commotion. “I am in charge of this carriage,” Paul continued. “So I will see you later. Have a good journey!”
“Great!” I said. “Thanks!”
Two minutes later, there was another knock.
“MY NAME IS DOUGLAS!”
“MY NAME IS SIMEON!”
“GREAT! I HAVE YOUR BEDDING!”
This was going to be a good train journey.
We were out of Mombasa as soon as the darkness folded completely over the endless landscape. I tore my window open and stuck my head out like a dog panting in the wind. The cool breeze slammed into my face as the train chugged along rhythmically; the sky was cloudless, the stars uncountable, the moon a thin sliver high up in the emptiness. Soon thereafter, my gleeful escapade was rudely interrupted as I was hit with a faceful of dust and bugs, after which I sheepishly retreated back inside.
I settled back on my bed in my gloriously lonely cabin, perfectly content to read my book and write my notes as we snaked our way across Kenya.
In the morning, after a comfortable sleep interrupted only by the periodic cries of the infant next door, we stopped at the station of Makinde, but then didn’t leave. I stuck my head into the passage just as Paul was walking down the corridor.
“There is a problem on the railway up ahead, but they are fixing it,” he was noticeably quieter than the night before. “Hakuna Matata.”
In the meantime, I was invited to the restaurant cabin for breakfast. Fruit and strawberry jam lay on the table in a quaint little compartment as I walked in, alongside Victorian-era silver goblets. It was all extremely affable and quiet. I was served toast, eggs, a lone sausage and baked beans, with coffee and fruit juice, all of which further contributed to my complete pleasure on this fascinating train journey.
I was able to disembark and explore a little, as ‘the fixes would [ominously] take some more time’; on the one side of the train, where the platform stood, local boys loudly played a two-touch possession game of football, occasionally slamming the ball into the side of the train. On the other side, which opened up into a wide and effortlessly flat landscape, three young herdsmen kept a careful eye on a group of about 8 cows and 25 scraggly goats. I observed them for a while: the herdsmen, who could not have been older that 12, traced the outside of the grazing animals, holding sticks and picking up stones in case any nomad threatened to break from the pack. The accuracy with the stones in particular was unerring; at one point, one of the boys cocked his ear to something in the distance before launching a monstrous throw into the shimmering morning air – it missed a scurrying squirrel by a couple of inches.
“Ayy…,” he tutted, while I stood somewhat dumbstruck.
Back on the train, I met Jonathon, who was a police officer. He was dressed casually in a white vest and grey trousers, with distinctive hard features that seemingly disabled any semblance of emotion. He spoke in short, sharp sentences.
“The police work in shifts,” he said. “There is always police on this train, for protection. We go to Nairobi and straight back to Mombasa. I do this once every two months. The rest of the time I work in Mombasa.”
“What’s the crime like in Mombasa?” I asked.
“Ah, the biggest problem there is the insecurity. It is a nice place but there is big insecurity.”
“Is there often religious-based trouble?” The Mandera massacre was still weighing heavily on my mind.
“Yes. There is a big Islam community in Mombasa. Almost three quarters of the population. But it is the terrorist groups, Al-Shabaab and them, that cause the insecurity.”
Suddenly, he shook his head and sighed, long and hard, before exploding in rare show of emotion: “How can you do that?! Just shoot innocent people?!” He was obviously referring to Mandera. “They did nothing! And now 28 people are dead, and 22 of them were teachers. Ah…” He shook his head again, and looked at me almost pleading for the answers to his unanswerable questions. I looked down.
After a few seconds of silence, he continued: “Nairobi is nicer, but there are still thugs. But, you know what?” With this, he leant forward, intently. “In a society, you need good and bad people. There will always be good and bad people. You have priests, you have thugs, you have teachers, you have con men. It is what makes society…” – he traced a circle with in the air with his two index fingers – “…whole.”
After a while, we got onto the topic of Chinese influence in Kenya.
“The Chinese are building a new express railway between Mombasa and Nairobi. They say it will take 4 hours!” Jonathon looked visibly excited.
“Do you think it’s good that the Chinese are so involved here?” I asked.
“Yes, I think so. They are the engineers, Kenyans are the manpower. Kenya needs to become more developed, and catch up with South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana…”
The rest of the train journey was characterised by yet more delays. Paul often dropped by the cabin.
“We will arrive at noon.”
“We will arrive at 5pm.”
“We will arrive at 7pm.”
I didn’t mind too much – I lounged, I slept, I read my book and wrote my notes, I spoke to Jonathon and we made friends with the sweet little girl, who’s name was Precious, from the family next door. I kept a close eye on the passing scenery – choppy undergrowth, inconsistent mountain ranges, wide savannah plains and the odd scattering of wild animals such as springbok, zebra and wildebeest.
Jonathon started a running commentary of the towns and villages we passed. When we were finally somewhere on the outskirts of Nairobi, as dusk started to settle once more, we passed through Kitengela: “this is where the rich men live,” Jonathon murmured. “Look at the houses.” Big buildings, colourful roofs, extensive gardens and a school with what looked like a state of the art football pitch. “You don’t even have to ask – the buildings tell you themselves.”
We pulled into Nairobi station at 8pm, after a full 25-hour journey. I said goodbye to Jonathon, who by this point has changed into his full police gear, complete with a gun slung over his shoulder. I had, once again, arrived in a big African city at night, knees knocking and teeth chattering, hoping that I’d find a nice enough taxi that would, firstly, know where my backpackers was and, secondly, wouldn’t overcharge me.
The chances, admittedly, were slim.