Journey to the Center of the Earth
The Marble Room: How I Lost God and Found Myself in Africa
A speed taxi in Tanzania is a Toyota or Peugeot wagon able to seat up to seven passengers plus a driver. Silk tassels fringe the windshield and dashboard, and most taxis carry a photo of the president, or Arnold Schwarzenegger as
The Terminator, or some other heroic figure. One last thing: the word "speed" not only refers to a taxi's relative velocity (and higher fare) but also the higher rate of thrills a passenger can expect to experience. Circular red-and-white signs posted along the roadside advertising some two-digit number aren't even suggestions to the speed taxi driver. If anything, signs are used in timing and bluffing strategies with other drivers who squeeze their vehicles around trucks and cars; and between pedestrians, bicycles, livestock, and even the occasional zebra. NASCAR, Formula 500, and adventure video games have nothing on your run-of-the-mill speed taxi driver.
Brad, Rolf, and I left Rolf's house before daylight. By 8:00 a.m. we had hired a speed taxi in Arusha and were racing across the termite-mounded savanna toward the Kenya border. Along the way, the driver entertained us and our African co-passengers with a cassette tape of Legend by Bob Marley and the Wailers. At the border town of Namanga we switched to a Kenyan speed taxi. The Kenyan driver preferred the 70s rock superstar Abba and played hits like "Take a Chance on Me" and "Dancing Queen."
"Shazam!" Brad said, recognizing some old faves. Months earlier, Brad said he had once played a bit part in an MTV music video, though I had never seen it and was skeptical. I changed my mind, though, when he persuaded the Africans in the taxi to sing along with him and groove the "butter churn."
Brad and I were similar in build and height, though he was a much stronger runner. He was also a proverbial class clown and an unconventional thinker, which helped him connect with his teenage math students. Another talent was his ability to remain calm and levelheaded under pressure; a possible life saver on a steep mountain.
We arrived in Nairobi early that afternoon. Downtown Nairobi is essentially a modern city and is known as "Nairobbery" by many of its residents. With this in mind, we kept an eye on one another's backpacks as we hiked to the nearest bank to change our Tanzanian shillings into Kenyan shillings. Unfortunately the tellers would not exchange them for notes that held approximately one-tenth the value of their own nation's currency. Time was running out. Our bus to Mount Kenya was about to leave, so we asked around and were soon led down a filthy backstreet alley to an upstairs "dealer." His henchmen corralled us into a smoky room and guarded the door. Flakes of blue paint had peeled off the cinder-block walls and the only furniture was a heavy, steel desk. The fat cat himself sat behind the desk and smiled as he eagerly changed all our cash into Kenyan shillings at, shall we say, his advantage. He knew he had us. We were in a pinch and on his turf, but since we left the place unharmed, with all our gear and enough cash to make do, I still thought we got a bargain.
By late afternoon we were on a minibus crammed with twenty-some souls bound for Chogoria. Traffic was slow as we drove north. Several police roadblocks made it go even slower. Most vehicles were stopped and inspected for registration, adequate tire pressure, matching headlight power, or anything else the police could invent to collect bribes. But not our minibus. The police waved us through each one. When I asked the driver why, he told me Kenya receives so much foreign aid and tourism dollars from wazungu, white people, that a vehicle with a white face on board is never stopped. This explained why he had insisted my two friends and I sit at the front of the bus.
We pulled into town not long after dark. Chogoria is a mountain town that is in direct antithesis to a chic, upscale resort like Aspen or Val d'Isère. It hunkers down rosy-cheeked and evergreen at 5,000 feet on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, and misty nights are cool, temperatures in the fifties. Residents wear knitted caps, scarves, layers of secondhand coats, and woolen trousers tucked into knee-high rubber boots.
Tired and hungry from traveling all day, we hauled our gear into a seedy guesthouse bar that reminded me of the cantina in the original Star Wars movie. The place was lit only by two guttering kerosene lanterns and the air was thick with the smoke of Sportsman cigarettes, which made it even more difficult to see. Chogoria had no electricity.
The only entrées available were steak—cow or goat—and meat soup, or meat shish kebab, and the only beverage was beer. Forced to break my self-sworn affidavit for avoiding meat, I ordered the soup, à la carte. I preferred to drink my nutrition instead of rending it from rubbery gristle. A few globs of the jelly-like ketchup Peptang squeezed into my soup improved its flavor dramatically. I also settled into my very first Tusker lager. I found the flavor slightly hoppy, but the carbonated smile it put on my face more than made up for it. Sweet and fruity, the pride of Kenya.
Local observances mandated a small portion of every fermented drink be poured onto the dirt floor in courtesy to the ancestors, a custom that made the floor sticky. I respectfully poured out a few drops of my beer. It seemed wherever I turned, there were these little reminders of everyone's impending mortality. At first I had found it depressing, but now I began to see how the ever-present uncertainties of life—especially in a place like Africa—were hereby equalized.
The mood was cheerful. Throaty laughter came from porters and guides padded up in wool and acrylic blends. People had that hard, weather-beaten look and the accessories to prove it—tired gaiters, re-stitched hiking boots, ice axes. One fellow even carried an AK-47 assault rifle—in a bar! Since guides were optional on Mount Kenya, patrons had already looked us over and dismissed us as being self-sufficient, doing our own thing, and therefore not in need of their services.
After dinner we pre-arranged a ride in a park service truck that was headed up to the entrance the next morning. Then we checked into a room. Our unheated, cement-block room was chilly and dank, so we unpacked our sleeping bags. We unrolled them onto the complimentary, open-cell foam mattresses and turned in. The town was quiet by 8:00 or 9:00. All I heard was a random muffled voice, a door close, a pail of water being thrown out. Right before I drifted off, I also heard a sawing, rasping sound in the trees outside our room. I was back in the land of the hyrax, the mountain's gatekeeper. I heard in his peculiar language both a greeting and a warning.
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