My husband and I had been living in Nairobi for a month when we decided it was time to visit Mombasa, a coastal city in Kenya. Mombasa is about 475 kilometers (about 300 miles) from Nairobi. The trip is a 50-minute flight, or a 7-hour drive. Instead, our group opted to take the train, which is lovingly referred to as "The Lunatic Express".
When my husband told his Kenyan coworkers that we were going to take the train to Mombasa, they said things like, "I'll start walking to Mombasa now and I'll probably beat you there," and "Why would you do that?". Clearly, we were lunatics for taking the train.
We bought first class tickets, which entitled us to a ramshackle room with two bunk beds, worn-out bed linens, and a mediocre dinner and breakfast on the train. That's right, we needed two meals on this train because apparently it was going to take us 14 hours to get to Mombasa.
I imagine that our train car was "first-class" fifty years ago. And to be fair, it was nicer than third class, where passengers spend the entire night on hard plastic seats. But the first-class car was lacking in certain first-class amenities, such as toilet paper, light bulbs, and cleanliness.
Surprisingly, we left the Nairobi train station on time. Unsurprisingly, the train's generator broke immediately. So, we began our journey chugging through one of Nairobi's slums in the dark. I stood at an open window, breathing in the dirty air of Nairobi and taking in the scene until a train employee said, You should shut the window. We are in a slum and sometimes people outside throw rocks in here."
The train had a disconcerting pattern of lurching from side to side, so dinner was a messy affair. We spilled our soup, and our drinks. We worried that the lantern swinging wildly above my head, might fall. Luckily, it didn't and after two lengthy stops, the generator was back up and running and the lantern was turned off.
The rocking of the train made sleeping difficult. My husband slept on the top bunk and we actually had to fasten a net across his bed so that he wouldn't come crashing to floor in the middle of the night. I found that I would usually fall asleep when the train stopped moving (and for some reason, it stopped a lot), and then I would wake up when it started moving again.
At breakfast the next morning, we learned that we would be arriving in Mombasa "a bit late." So we settled back down in our tiny cabins and watched Kenya roll by. Children stood next to the track and waved. Men sat outside traditional bomas, watching us pass. Women waited patiently at the intersection of the train tracks and the road, huge bundles balanced on their heads.
At 10:45 am, we pulled into the Mombasa station. It had taken us almost 16 hours to get from Nairobi to Mombasa. Luckily, we had already booked the 50 minute plane flight home.
My most overwhelming first impressions of Nairobi are centered on the smells. As my friend Julie pointed out to me, the U.S. is so sterile. People wear deodorant; we clean ourselves, our clothes, and our homes obsessively. Our trash is stored in dumpsters and cans and taken far away to decompose. My husband puts it like this, "At home, I never smell anything, and here I can smell all sorts of stuff." Touche.
Life is smelly here. You can see black car exhaust escaping from the tail pipes of buses. You can obviously smell it too, along with the trash that someone around the corner is burning. The sidewalks collapse into knee-deep gutters, where food wrappers and grass cuttings float in greasy rain water. A short walk leaves my nose running and my throat scratchy.
Body odor is a prevailing scent on the sidewalk and in stores. It's not gross, but it is strange to someone not used to smelling other people. I can see why people are sweating; it's warmer and more humid here than I expected. And I guess it makes me feel less conscious about my own sweating.
The grocery store smells like a cat died behind the milk section and no one did anything about it. Needless to say, we haven't bought any milk yet, although the smell permeates the entire store. The grocery store scents have migrated back to our house with our groceries. Apparently Kenyans like their fruit extra sweet, which means extra ripe. The area around our fruit bowl has that sickeningly sweet smell of fruit on the edge of rotting. Other groceries have left a lasting impression too. We didn't realize that a jar of hot sauce we had bought had started to ferment. When my husband opened it, it released a potent hot pepper gas that left us coughing, and laughing.
I have always thought that music conjures up my most vivid travel memories, but now I wonder if smells are just as powerful. What do you think?