“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.”-Rumi
Just as I settle into the only seat with some semblance of legroom – all hell breaks loose.
It starts when the rightful owner of seat 1c looms over me. He wants to know why I’ve taken his seat. I quickly stand up and try to mime I’m too tall for the seat that’s on my ticket (36b). Unfortunately he’s not quite understand why I’m running my hands up and down my legs like I’m playing Simon Says, so I try another approach.
I point to seat 36b with my left arm, and to seat 1c with my right arm, and then cross my arms back and forth hoping that that motion says to him, “let’s swap seats”.
Now a crowd of curious passengers quickly is forming around us. A few seconds later, everyone’s grabbing for my ticket and screaming at me in a language I don’t understand.
I have no idea what to do. I physically can’t fit into seat 36b, it’s barely got enough legroom for someone half my size.
Then just when I think things can’t get any more chaotic, Arabic music begins blasting from speakers inside the bus. It’s terrifying. On any other day I am sure I would find a way to enjoy the music, but right now it’s setting my already taut nerves jangling. I can’t think. Think!
I know I have to defuse this situation before it escalates and gets me kicked off the bus – so I pull 1,000 shillings out of my pocket (roughly 5 dollars). Again I try the “lets swap seats” arm-gesture, while placing the shillings in the man’s hand. Success! His face lights up and he is more than happy to run back to seat 36b. First crisis averted.
I feel I’m off to a bad start, so once I settle back into my seat I try introducing myself to the boy that’s sitting next to me – after all, we’re going to be sharing the same arm rest for the next fifteen hours. He is about 14 years old, is dressed in slacks and a button down, and he’ s wearing the shiniest black dress shoes I’ve ever seen – like he’s on his way to picture-day at school. I couldn’t imagine ever picking that outfit for today’s hellacious bus ride. The boy doesn’t say anything back, but he shyly waves while hiding his eyes.
The engine slowly warms up, shaking and rattling the bus. We’re almost ready to go.
To my American eye the bus is jam-packed: the aisles are stuffed with bags and boxes, and the legroom I once had has already been replaced by a pile of beat-up suitcases. There is even a motorcycle strapped to the roof. Yet despite looking like we’re fully at capacity, we still manage to stop three times to add more people before we actually make it out of Nairobi. Never underestimate the packing-power of an East African bus.
And away we go, leaving city lights behind and rolling northeast on the Embu-Nairobi Highway…
And then we pull over. It seems way too early for our first rest-stop. We have only been going for an hour or so, and the only thing on the side of the road is a dimly-lit wooden shack. Everyone quietly files off the bus and into the empty darkness towards the shack. I have no choice but to follow, I’m not going to sit on this bus all alone in the pitch black. As we get closer to a lone light-bulb, I watch everyone gather around jugs of water and begin to rinse their feet. Of course.
Everyone drops to their knees – and morning prayers begin.
The first prayer of the day is the Fajr prayer. It’s said to be God’s favorite prayer, as it is done while others are asleep. As everyone faces Mecca, I turn my back to the group. I do this not to be rude, but out of respect – I’m drawn to watch, but I don’t want to stare. It seems like praying is a pretty private thing, and the last thing I’d want is some stranger lurking over my shoulder while I’m doing it.
Every couple of seconds I hear the words, “Allahu Akbar” ring out – “Allah is the Greatest”. For Muslims this is the first of five daily prayers. This prayer is a kind of changing of the guard: it’s said that Allah has two sets of angels in the company of humanity, and each group ascends to their Lord at sunrise and sunset. In Arabic the word fajr means “dawn” and as the sun rises, so does the soul.
It’s not just in Islam that praying at this hour is of special spiritual significance. Fajr is where this dream of mine was written.
Islamic author Ihsan Torbai wrote that early morning is a blessed time and most conducive to spiritual awakening and the cultivation of consciousness, for while the world sleeps, the seekers and spiritual warriors arise and assert that “prayer is better than sleep.”
When I first made the commitment to myself that I was going to change my life and live my dreams no matter what, it was during this early morning hour. Instead of dropping to my knees at 5 AM, I would get up and walk to the beach. It was there, day after day at sun’s rising, you’d find me all alone, fumbling with my camera and working on my photography. It became my own spiritual tradition. It was just me, the promise I made to myself, and the waking world. It was where a journey like this seemed so impossible, but at the same time irresistible.
The time for the Fajr prayer is a time for light and blessings – and as if on cue, the sun begins to light up the sky before inching over the horizon. I remember this time; I’d normally have my camera up to my eye, and my toes in the water by now, waiting for the right moment. (The sun moves much quicker than you think – it doesn’t hang around the horizon for much more than a minute.) And just like the sun, the Fajr prayer replaces the darkness and provides guidance by illuminating the human heart and soul.
By the time we actually start moving again, it’s well past dawn. I haven’t slept all night, nor do I feel any real peace for what lies ahead. I’m constantly peering out the windows, checking everything that moves like a caricature of Homeland Security. Then amid my growing paranoia, something happens – maybe the only thing that can calm me down at this point. The boy sitting next to me falls asleep, his head bobs from side to side – and lands right on my shoulder.
I admit, I’d normally flinch in germophobic disgust and immediately wake the person who put their head there. Nobody loves their personal space more than I do. But I quickly find there’s s a strange comfort in it, a reassuring presence, like were family, like where in this together. Like were going to make it. We ride like this until he wakes up.
And then just as I start to think, okay, I can do this, everything is going to be okay – everything takes a really nasty turn.
The bus driver turns on the TV at the front of the bus. I watch him plug a USB flash drive into it. Oh wow, a movie – maybe this trip isn’t going to be so bad after all. Something to help me forget about Al-Shabaab and just how dangerous this bus ride really is. But to my horror I quickly realize this isn’t a movie; this is some sort of news documentary on…
You guessed it.
The sound is in Arabic so I can’t tell what the faces on the screen are saying, but when images of Al-Shabaab in action flash across the screen, it scares the life out of me.
This is a gruesome documentary, which I’m sure is probably meant to vilify Al-Shabaab and show how terrible they are, but the film goes to extreme lengths to do it. It shows actual security footage from the time Al-Shabaab attacked Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in 2012, when they murdered 62 people.
I’m trying to avoid looking at the screen – because it’s showing some of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in my life. Images like this would never be allowed to be shown at home (but of course America is half the world away at this point). And the reason why this hits me so hard is that I was in that very mall the same year it was attacked, during a separate unrelated trip to this one. I ate lunch in the café on the first floor where the initial stages of the attack began. I shopped in the bookstore on the second floor and won money-playing blackjack in the casino on the third floor. In fact the most important thing I was ever given in my life, the post card that I wrote about in Chapter 2, was bought for me in the bookstore that’s now gone.
The whole bus is transfixed by the screen. The jaw of the boy next to me is hanging open. The documentary is accompanying the dreadful images with machine-gun sounds so loud that it feels like the bus itself is being fired upon. I avert my eyes, put my ear buds in and turn the volume up as high as it will go, but it’s not enough to drown out the violent sounds. I’m at a loss for how any human being could watch this. I bury my head in my lap and try to think about positive things, but I can’t, I’m terrified – and can’t help but envision these scenes playing out on this bus as we get closer to the border.
When we finally pull over for a bathroom break, I try to ask the bus driver why on earth would you show something that violent. He says in broken English, “Is it a problem?”
I want to say yeah it’s a big problem, but I don’t want any trouble, so I shut my mouth and look for a place to stock up on bottles of water.
I’m still shaken as I get back on the bus; by now we are the only vehicle on the road. Nairobi’s factories are far behind us and outside the window the countryside is beginning to open up, the landscape shifting from fertile, flat soil to arid mountainous land. As we pass the invisible line that separates East Africa from North Africa I unwrap my cheeses sandwiches serving as breakfast and lunch. I’m hungry – but after that documentary I have no appetite, and can barely taste anything.
Over the next four hours the bus stops at every police check between Isiolo and Marsabit, and agonizing routine that has me nervously scanning the desert until we depart. I’m half expecting to see Al-Shabaab or an army of bandits with machine guns headed our way. The closer we get to Moyale, the more likely shiftas (the local term for rebel) become. It’s a dangerous route for that reason alone.
Around noon, the road dramatically changes from a smooth, paved surface to a dirt road that’s riddled with potholes as far as the eye can see. Now the bus can only creep through the baking desert at about five to ten miles per hour, and so we are forced to lurch along like this for the next three hours. If there were to be some sort of attack or ambush, now would be the time to do it – we would be sitting ducks. I envision myself running for cover, but in this barren desert there isn’t much cover and its about a hundred degrees out anyhow. The potholes are so deep and so unavoidable that I have to hold onto the metal bar in front of me to keep from bouncing out of my chair. It’s mentally exhausting and physically draining.
Around 4 PM we make one last pit stop at…I guess it’s a village, if you can call it that. There’s a small restaurant inside a shack that is barely standing, and a group of people milling around that can’t take their eyes off me. I would love to know what they think of me. I doubt it’s often that they get a 6’9 pale white visitor with tattoos, unshaven and unshorn in nearly a year. They watch me closely as I pour a bottle of ice-cold water over my head and try to wash off the encrusted dirt that billowed through the bus’s open windows.
I can sense that we are finally getting close to the border, and that this next stretch is our last hurdle to safety – but this is also the part where the shiftas are known to raid the buses. Everyone nervously piles back into his or her seat and we shudder off across more potholes.
I feel like I hold my breath the whole way, until we arrive at the Kenyan side of Moyale at 5:45 PM. We made it – but the journey isn’t over.
Now, one last sprint. I rush off the bus because I know that I only have 15 minutes to clear Kenyan and Ethiopian immigration. If I don’t make it, it means I’ll have to spend two nights here – and Moyale has a reputation for being one the most dangerous border towns in East Africa so one night is plenty. There have been ethnic clashes as recently as 2012 between the Borana and Gabra communities here caused by long-standing disputes over land that lead to at least 20 people dying.
And a quick note about border towns: they are unequivocally the shadiest places on earth. The second you step off the bus in any border town, you’re instantly pounced upon by hustlers that want to change your money over from the country you just left to the country your entering. They have a million tricks to scam money out of you. And there is always a flood of relentless taxi drivers promising to take you wherever you want to go, even though they probably have no idea about the hotel or street you’re trying to get to. So when I leap off the bus, I push through this pack of human vultures that’s waiting for me, haul my bag out of the potato sack it was stuffed into, and hurriedly try to find the Kenyan immigration office.
But of course I can’t find it. I’m still in East Africa, so the streets are unmarked and as confusing as ever. Added to which, I’ve never actually arrived in a new country and not been completely confused. It’s like you lose track of all your senses the first few minutes you step foot in a new place. Now it takes a minute or so to get my bearings with all the taxi drivers screaming at me and jangling their keys in my face. It’s precious time I can’t afford to burn, and I hate to do it, but I have to ask someone for help. So I make the motion of a stamp hitting my passport to a man that’s nearby, and he motions that he will take me there. I have nothing to lose and no idea where to go so I follow him.
I ask him to speed up the pace and I’m frantic because I have ten minutes to make it across the border before it closes. Walking with this guy who doesn’t have a care in the world is taking too long – so I ascertain where I need to go, flag down a passing motorbike, and balancing my bag on my lap, we speed right up to the border.
I jump off the bike and into the Kenyan immigration office and get my exit stamp in a record-breaking time of two minutes. Usually I get asked a million questions about where I am going and what I am doing at immigration, but thankfully I don’t have to play that game today.
Five minutes to go and only 300 yards to the Ethiopian immigration office.
I hop back on the bike with all my things and we speed off.
Alas, disappointment awaits me. As I approach, it’s clear the Ethiopian immigration office is closed. As I peer through the gate, someone yells to me from across the street and they tell me that today is an Ethiopian holiday and that the office closed early today. I’m told that that I will have to come back tomorrow at 8 AM.
I yell back, “When does the buses leave for Addis Ababa?”
“The only one leaves at 6 AM.”
So I’m spending two nights here after all. And yes, I made it to Moyale, I made it through alive – but how do I get around this?