There is always healing on the road, travellers tell you. You return older, and repaired.
Maybe it was the startling discovery that the age-o-metre was swinging dangerously north of 30 and there would be more responsibilities further up. Maybe it was the wanderlust; to just ‘get on the bus and do it’ as a friend had once suggested.
But there I was, at the bus depot at Eastleigh outside Nairobi. I was going to Moyale in northern Kenya. We were a motley crew, a clash of colour as it should be of sojourners: a Finnish film crew, Somali traders, a scattering of Ethiopians. There were bags, and a bedlam of distant languages. It all felt right.
The people, their belongings, their turbans and ochre-dipped beard; the wailing toddlers — it somehow occurred to me were stories. Certainly I was a story, and there was a script and it felt fitting that I had packed in my travel bag Pearl, the biography of the tumultuous female rock legend Janis Joplin.
It was going to be my last road trip — a hegira-type journey. There is always healing on the road, travellers tell you. You return older, and repaired.
INTO THE DESERT
Not too long ago, a soldier friend told me that the Nairobi-Addis Ababa road via Moyale — one of the projects under the Kenya Vision 2030 — is nearly complete. It would be nice to experience it now but looking back, the caffeine would have gone. My hegira to Moyale in Marsabit County — all 768km of it was going to be in a future book (never happened) and the loose gravel, every stop, every conversation and ultimately the escape from life would mean something.
The bus pulled out of the station just before 7pm, a whole hour late. I retrieved Pearl and she was as good an accompanying friend as any. All too soon, we had passed Isiolo Town and cruising towards Marsabit.
The road so far had been smooth, but roughly 100km from Marsabit Town, the tarmac yielded to loose gravel and rocks that shook the bus. An adventure was happening.
Nearly all passengers aboard had succumbed to sleep; seemingly from fatigue or familiarity of the route. I looked up from my book and out the sky. I dog-eared Janis Joplin; out the window was a revelation unfolding.
It was stunning: the bright puncture of stars bravely blinking against the inky night; a poet’s night. It was the kind of night that makes one question the reality of death.
Our first stop was at a small, sleepy roadside town named Turbi. Having travelled for hours, we were glad to alight for some whiff of desert air and to stretch our now numbed limbs. Muslim passengers spread out their prayer mats and knelt for prayer.
When we embarked a new passenger was aboard: a policeman, a gun down the shoulder. It is routine, we were advised, because of escalating ambushes on the route. He chewed the allegedly sleep-depriving khat from a plastic bag. At some point, he broke into a slow song that sounded distant and hypnotic.
It’s the last thing I heard before my mind dominoes.
When I woke up, it was already daylight. Over 12 hours had passed since we began the journey. The day wore on. My cell phone reception had since gone out of service area. Outside the sun blazed white; the land endless, flat and straight.
The bus stopped more often now. Construction of the road was in progress and we came across crews with their earthmovers and trucks. Once complete, road transport will be markedly easier.
“How much far to go?” I asked Hawa, or Eve — named for the fabled mother of all of humanity. She had lent me her shawl the previous night. I told her she truly was Hawa to which she smiled demurely.
“Almost there,” she said as Moyale Raha made the climb up a rocky incline, made a couple of turns and finally drove into town. It was 6.30pm; we had been on the road for 24 hours.
Two Moyales exist; one in Kenya, the other in Ethiopia, separated by a bridge and the colonialists’ maps and united by trade and culture. Communities on both sides have for years engaged in cross-border trade thus making Moyale a crucial economic hub and transit point despite sporadic inter-ethnic clashes.
With no other entry requirements save for a passport, Kenyan traders cross to Ethiopia for grain and shoe wear, which are transported by road to Nairobi and other towns.
In the morning, I hop on a scooter for a ride to the Ethiopian side. Moyale-Ethiopia is markedly different and more prosperous-looking than its Kenyan double. The road is well-tarmacked. Amharic music blared from music shops. I entered an eatery for a taste of Ethiopian culinary. I am served Injera, a sour dough flat bread, served with a steaming helping of goat meat dipped in sauce so peppery I almost choked. But you can’t have been to Ethiopia without tasting it.
Later that evening I sat at a table in a club, and egged on by Guyo, the man who chauffeured me on his bike, I gripped a bottle of King George, a popular local beer. Kenyan and Ethiopian music played in ear-splitting urgency and near the counter, a gaggle of impossibly beautiful Ethiopian girls — the type that make married men bite their ring finger. It is a business, and a pimp stood by the door. It’s pay before, well, before business, complete with a voucher.
The late American author Paul Shepard wrote: “To the desert go prophets and hermits; through desert go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.”
Seen through the window of a speeding vehicle, Chalbi Desert doesn’t seem like a place any person would venture to for spiritual renewal or introspection.
Miles and miles of sand and ground so parched and cracked it resembles a tortoise carapace, Chalbi Desert is as frightening as it is imposing.
We are on our way back to Nairobi, and having passed through the desert by night on the way to Moyale, I am eager to soak in the exquisite sight of a true desert. ‘Chalbi’ in Gabbra language means ‘bare and salty’.
In this vast, empty barren land, everything seems insignificant, powerless.
Hours fly past and soon darkness falls. We stop at Merille Town at about nine o’clock for a bite. A man wearing a Muslim skull cap encourages me to buy a traditional chewing stick which, he tells me, is famed for keeping teeth toothpaste ad-ready white and firm.
Dimly lit and decidedly quaint, Merille Town seems like a scene straight out of Twilight. Children play with a ball in the dusty ground. A mosque juts out in the background, its minaret barely visible.
It’s an impossibly beautiful night with a sliver of moon in the sky; the kind of sight that demands posterity. I grab my camera. A boy approaches me and we pose for a photo, for which he demands a pack of biscuits.
I oblige. The journey is uneventful, save for numerous security-check stops. After hours on rough road, it feels refreshing to be back on the tarmac. Isiolo is the last stop. The next time I open my eyes, we are at the Eastleigh bus stage.
"Alhamdulilahi," the passenger next to me says, "thanks and praise be to God,” he interprets as he disembarks ahead of me to join the teeming crowds of the Eastleighs.
NEVER SAY NEVER
Soon, the road will be complete and gone will be the loose gravel, blisters and holes. The Chinese have been baking pink out there in the white sun. When I travelled up north and made it back, I had determined that would be it; it would be the last long-distance road trip before I lay down all youth, shut that door — Peter Pan and all.
It was of course a lie. There’s no end to these things; if wanderlust and madness has gripped you, the end is the beginning. The hegira never ends.