Eric is my driver, although to be frank, he doesn’t look like an Eric. He’s a quiet fellow, and polite. The traffic out from the airport, like the world over, is slow. We hit our first snag at a parking payment point. It takes a minute or so for each vehicle to pay and pass. There’s a drawbridge for each car, and it automatically rises and falls with languor. When we get close, it breaks down altogether, in all three lanes. The staff do their best, without rushing, lifting the pole manually and taking money without haste. In our lane, and ours alone, no-one takes money. A lady stands in front of our car, arguing with another worker about the best method for clearing the backlog. Whatever it is, it’s not her idea. Twenty minutes later, we’re waved through.
Kenya is a counterpoint to Qatar. People do not drive, they walk. Even in the most remote areas. Bushes and shrubs grow in profusion: the vegetation is untamed and unkempt. There are puddles by the side of the road, and dirt, and potholes. Trees with horizontal foliage. The evil birds re-appear, looking down menacingly from street signs. Eric says they are carnivorous. Hornbills, he calls them. They frighten me.
After 10km or so, the traffic stops completely. Without warning. We move nowhere.
“Gee, the traffic is bad,” I say, after 30 minutes of inaction, as if such a thing wasn’t obvious.
“It’s very bad. We have a big problem,” says Eric. “We could be here for maybe two, three hours.” Great, and here’s me in a metered cab. Now I know why it’s a country of pedestrians: it’s faster to walk. In fact, it’s faster to sleep in the shade of a telegraph pole for half the day, moving as required to follow the shadow, and indeed, that’s what many people do.
The procedure seems to be this. After 15 minutes or so, the cars move, maybe 300m, then stop again. I can’t see why this should be so. There are no traffic lights. We just stop.
The traffic is so bad that hawkers wander up and down the road peddling their worthless goods. No hurry: they’ll get to everyone. Grapes, bananas, artwork (!), lollies. Public busses languish in the line with us, their money collector swinging with frustration from the door with fistfuls of notes. Motorcycles weave in and out like insects.
It starts to get hot. Eric has no air conditioning, and I begin to stew. My shirt sticks. Pedestrians swarm about like bees, moving thickly as if submerged. The men are collared, shirts perfectly pressed, the women precisely cornrowed. This country cares about its appearance. Flyers posted on light-posts advertise witch-doctors, who claim, by enchantment, to resolve one’s modern ills. Mr Odo professes love-potions, promises business success, will relieve sickness. I only wish I had the time to contract with him.
It transpires that Kenya is ruled by roundabouts. There may or may not be lights at the roundabouts (and yes, I can tell you that there are traffic lights), but right now, and probably at most other times, it’s governed by traffic police, who let through only a select number of vehicles, damn the lights. Eric tries to sneak through, and earns the ire of an officer, who cruelly sends us back through two sets of roundabouts as a punishment, adding a full 30 mins to the trip. Doesn’t he know I’m on the meter?
It is, without doubt, the worst traffic I have even encountered in any country in the world, and I’ve been to Vietnam and Nepal. Eric is shy, tapping at the horn like it’s a butterfly, so timidly that it makes no sound at all. I wonder as to the purpose of that tap.
At one point Eric looks worried. He leans across me and winds up the window. I’m not pleased by this: the inside of the cab has started to feel like the change rooms for the Cairo Marathon. I question his motivation: he says it’s for security reasons. Apparently, locals think nothing of reaching into a moving vehicle and extracting valuables from tourists, and there is nothing to be done but try to sweat it out quietly. If it was 22 degrees when I arrived, it’s 32 now, and the air is thick. Somehow, the landscape conspires to look both overgrown and parched at the same time. Rubbish and plastic grow on the ground like weeds. If only there was someone to mow.
Eventually, we reach my hotel. No, it’s not the one Hemmingway wrote in, I couldn’t afford that one, but it’s not far away, if that makes a difference. I check in and order a beer as fast as I can. It’s warm, and experience eventually tells me I couldn’t reasonably expect otherwise. As I sip it with a slightly disappointed air, I note that my co-guests are probably all employed by the UN or divers NGOs: they are all tapping on lap-tops, feverishly completing power-point presentations for tomorrow’s meeting.
Whatever, I just wish my beer was colder.