Despite my earlier reservations, it only took around half a day for Nanyuki to shift from being a strange land rife with potential dangers to my new home. I love waking up in the morning and seeing the gauzy form of Mt. Kenya through the filter of my mosquito net, which hangs from a four poster bed that makes me feel like a consumptive prince or a soldier convalescing after a major head injury. But after five days in town, which I largely spent exploring the contents of the supermarket and making my daily pilgrimage down the road for decent coffee, it was time to go to “the field.”
In the weeks leading up to this trip, “the field” has been referred to as an amorphous destination vaguely located in the north. My first foray was to be to a town called Oldonyiro, located about one or three hours away, depending on factors as yet unclear to me. The only evidence of its existence online is that it’s the site of a USAID-funded livestock market, and that in June, it faced a devastating water shortage wrought by increasingly severe droughts.
Still, I had no idea how to prepare. Would I be staying in a hotel? A campsite? A shed? How much water should I bring? How much money? In the office in Nanyuki, I tried to inquire after these things without sounding desperate. “Bring some water,” said Dorcas, the person appointed to handle my inane questions. “More than that,” she said, pointing to my Nalgene. “And bring snacks.”
The “bring snacks” edict was repeated so many times that I began to worry. Why did I need so many snacks? Did the field…not have food? I’m someone who tends to have one or more sandwiches located somewhere on my person at all times, but the “bring snacks” refrain, repeated in earnest by at least three others, scared me. At the supermarket I loaded myself down with all manner of chips, cookies and nuts, but also bought some bread, peanut butter and jelly. If a person with normal eating habits was worried about me being hungry, what would that mean for me, who threatens to collapse into a heap if more than an hour elapses without a meal?
We were to leave at 7:30 on Monday morning, and when the appointed hour rolled around, I was as ready as I was going to be. I had a bag packed full of long dresses and a canvas sack brimming with the all-important snacks. I had a full Nalgene and another liter of water for the drive, after Dorcas assured me I could get water where we were going.
But at 7:40, Duncan, who would be serving as my photographer, texted to say that the car wouldn’t arrive until around 9. I wave of relief washed over me, and I went back to my room to roll around my still-warm bed and half-watch a European soccer match on TV.
But the appointed time came and went, and just as I was beginning to think maybe I could just stay put forever, the receptionist alerted me that my car was here. Duncan materialized in the lobby, and as he hoisted my bag to the car, he eyed my water bottles. “That’s all you’re bringing?” he asked, wide-eyed. “You’re going to need more.” OKAY GOOD TO KNOW.
One trip to the grocery story and one 18-liter jug of water later (a purchase that inspired Aziza, my translator, to laugh directly into my face and shriek “That’s SO much water!”), we were on the way. The town of Nanyuki vanished almost instantly, the already tenuous suggestion of a road lapsing quickly into mud, scarred with deep trenches from daily onslaughts of rain. Shepherds walked along wielding large sticks to keep their herds of floppy-eared goats out of the path of passing Land Cruisers and motorcycles. Every so often, we’d pass someone walking a camel or two, which are much larger than I’d thought they were. Sprays of morning glory rose from the red dirt, and Ace of Base boomed from the speakers as we plowed over the trenches, our bodies flung about in an involuntary, spasmodic dance that often seemed in time with the music.
At some point, we passed a Wildlife Crossing sign as we rolled over some cattle catchers, and before I could even get my hopes up, Abdi, the driver, gestured out the window. “Giraffe,” he said, as calmly as if he were pointing out a rest stop. Indeed, straight to the left of the car a giraffe lazily munched at an acacia tree, its overall demeanor reminiscent of a misshapen cow from another planet. We were so close I could see its eyelashes flutter, and I emitted a squeak that sent my companions into peels of laughter. “Giraffes are normal for us, we see them all the time,” said Aziza, who I was beginning to suspect enjoyed making me feel stupid.
Nevertheless they humored me, and Abdi slowed the Cruiser down while I took in the giraffe, its preposterous form and richly tiled coat standing in stark contrast to the endless dull green of the Kenyan scrub. In some ways, the landscape is intensely dramatic, with towering rock formations and jagged mountains and vast blue skies that remind me of nowhere else on Earth. But on the ground, things aren’t quite so impressive. Acacia trees are squat and mean-looking, and even in the rainy season, vegetation is far from lush. This, of course, makes spotting animals almost zoo-like in its easiness, particularly since Kenya’s animals are known for the striking patterns on their coats. From the car we would see giraffes, zebras, gazelle and dik-dik, a tiny variety of antelope that fully grown are about the size of a house cat. None of these sights inspired my car mates to so much as raise their eyes from their phones. “Don’t you care, just a little?” I prodded. They did not.
After crashing along the road for about an hour, we encountered a semi-truck heading the opposite direction. The driver informed Abdi that the road ahead was impassable due to the rains, a theme that would continue over the course of the week and also explain the the wild variance in travel times. No matter. We doubled back and headed for a new route, but even then, weren’t able to avoid what was essentially a river crossing, complete with a waterfall that unspooled grandly from the precipice left by the washed-away road. A debate in Swahili ensued for several minutes, during which I gathered that various strategies were being weighed.
In the end, “straight through” seemed to be the consensus. “Hang on,” Aziza said sternly, and Abdi threw the car into gear and hit the gas, sending the Cruiser careening over the edge before lurching gamely through the water. I held on as I was told, but we bounced so violently in our seats we’d have snapped our necks on the roof if not for the seatbelts pinning us in place. Abdi wanted quiet while he navigated the crossing, but once we made it through, he flicked the speakers back on, and Ed Sheeran’s voice suddenly filled the car; a strange reminder of home in an otherwise alien land. “We made it,” he sighed, a relieved smile spreading over his face.
We spent a lot of time in the car over the week, bouncing from one rural community to the next so I could do interviews. At first, the sights of these tiny towns dotting the plains were surprising: Signs were in English, advertising bars and hotels, yet they in no way resembled any bar or hotel I’d ever seen. The majority of structures were made either of packed earth or bundled sticks with grass roofs, smoothed over with tarps to keep out the relentless rainy season downpour. Concrete buildings were rare, and often came with a “Gift from the European Union” or USAID sign planted in front of them. All told, a “town” might consist of five scattered buildings total.
Oldonyiro turned out to be bigger than that, though not by much. Its main road was lined with a jumble of low-slung concrete buildings and corrugated tin shacks, the majority of which were labeled “Hotel and Butchery.” (This didn’t immediately strike me as a classic combination, though it actually makes a lot of sense, considering the majority of people who come to the town are there for the livestock market.) We stayed in a hotel at the edge of town in a tidy series of concrete rooms, each with their own bathrooms. Every evening, we sat in a hut made of sticks and ate ugali, greens and goat; a menu that along with eggs and tea at breakfast came out to a whopping $1.50 per person for the week. The snacks, it turns out, were because we’d only be eating two meals per day, though nobody had thought to tell me that.
By the time we piled back into the car for Nanyuki, the sight of young men in beads whacking at straying goats was no longer a novelty; nor were the mud-packed houses or hotel-cum-butcheries. In a matter of a few days, I’d shed my past reality in favor of this new one, slipping from one to the other with the ease of Mr. Rogers trading his outdoor shoes for his indoor sneakers. As we bounced back over the mud to Nanyuki, our progress was interrupted by a troop of baboons crossing the road; further down, we were treated to a family of giraffes nipping at the acacia.
This time, we all got out and took pictures, with Abdi and Duncan taking turns posing in front of them while snapping photos of each other. “If you see them all the time, why are you taking pictures?” I asked, half-joking but mostly not. As usual, they just laughed at me.