Like the dry, lingering cough I’ve had for the past six weeks, I can’t seem to get Nairobi out of my system. A city I’d planned to avoid like a pack of missionaries has, instead, proven to be an odd sort of saving grace. After my forays into the bush and my crammed matatus into the highlands, the sanctuary of Backpackers – a hostel set into a leafy space on the outskirts of town – has come to offer much-needed respite. It’s here, sitting by the fireplace with a cold Tusker, that I can warm my toes and listen to the drunk, lecherous owner make clumsy overtures toward British co-eds. I can catch up on work and watch the family of slow-witted tortoises get themselves wedged beneath the furniture. I can run up a ridiculous tab, drink myself to the verge of coma, and convince myself that the horror stories about Nairobi – a dark menace on the other side of the fence – are just a bit overdone, really.
The plan that got me through my first couple of weeks in Nairobi, though, veers off-track after just a few days. Deciding it’s finally time to tackle my bronchial problems, I pay a visit to Nairobi General – conveniently located just five minutes down the road. There’s a well-worn path between Backpackers and the emergency room, as the hostel has gradually evolved into an outpatient clinic for the walking wounded. Neil – the Brit I befriended a month ago – has been paying twice-weekly visits to a stomach specialist, trying to unravel the mystery of his ravaged intestines. Despite a colonoscopy and a smorgasbord’s worth of antibiotics, they still can’t figure out why he’s had diarrhea for a solid (if you will) four months. Mike, an American who’d been planning an overland to Ethiopia when I met him four weeks ago, still hasn’t made it out of Nairobi. On friendly terms with a tropical disease specialist, he’s gotten no closer to Addis than a couple of cheap meals at the Blue Nile restaurant nearby.
The doctor’s prognosis, once I’ve hacked and wheezed and taken a few sputtering breaths, is disconcertingly noncommittal. It could be a virus, or not. It could clear up in a few days, or maybe a week. She scribbles out a prescription and recommends a few over-the-counters, smiling sympathetically. Outside it’s overcast and blustery: a gray winter’s day in Nairobi. I pick up some cough syrup and head back to the hostel, where a cheerless circle of sickly backpackers huddles by the fireplace. Storm clouds are gathering and grumbling their discontent. There are at least 52,000 places I’d rather be.
While the codeine-laced cough syrup doesn’t do much for my lungs, it ensures that I spend the week in a boozed-up, narcotic stupor. I stumble around the hostel and doze off in the lounge; I nod wearily at my computer, trying to string together sentences while the words bob across the screen. By the end of the week, convinced that my cough is going to linger like a washed-up pop star, I decide to ditch the medicine and rely on God’s good graces. Then I pack my bags and buy a ticket for Mombasa, hoping that a few weeks on the sultry coast will revive my body’s battered spirits.
I’ve joined up with an American named Mike, a tall, wiry kid from the West Coast who’s had a camera slung across his shoulder for at least 80% of the time since we met. In the dining room he foists himself upon me with brute chumminess, forcing me to scramble and recover the cool, ironic distance I so closely guard. Before long he’s invited himself into my cab and offered to share a second-class cabin, and I suspect it’ll take a couple of harsh words to keep him from climbing into my bunk at the end of the night. Not for the last time, I’m reminded of that sad truism of my life as a traveler: travel would be awfully swell, if there weren’t people constantly butting in, trying to share it with you.
We’ve given ourselves an hour to get to the train station, but the sky opens up as we’re getting into a cab. In the time it takes us to walk the fifty paces from our hostel to the taxi’s door, an apocalyptic storm blows in. We crawl through traffic, water dripping into the car from a few pinpoint holes in the roof. Our driver shakes his head and winces at the windshield getting pounded by rain.
“Very bad. Very bad,” he says, wiping at the windows.
Mike starts lobbying to get out and walk the remaining half-mile to the station, his eyes anxiously falling to his wristwatch , but I prefer to sit tight. It proves to be a smart move before long, as the traffic lets up and we surge through curtains of rain, pulling into the station with plenty of time to spare. A crowd is gathered on the platform: men in business suits and women with fat shopping bags, little kids tightly bundled in oversized jackets and woolen hats. There are groups of bewildered backpackers milling in circles, hiking boots dangling from their packs. The station’s restaurant has flooded. Mike struggles to restrain himself amid such photogenic mayhem, but his resistance finally caves: he plops down his pack, asks me to keep an eye on it, and disappears into the soggy crowd, pointing and clicking away.
By the time he returns the train’s slowly wheezed into the station. People are shouting and scrambling, tugging on suitcases and frantically trying to match the numbers on their tickets with the numbers on the carriages. The bedlam belies the fact that, once we’ve boarded, the train will move not an inch for the better part of an hour. The conductor paces the cars, waving a fluorescent lantern and inspecting our boarding slips. He apologizes that only half the train has power, the wilting smile on his face speaking volumes about just which half we’ll be spending the night in. The others in my cabin – a bearded backpacker from Canada, Larry; a tall, handsome Arab named Faisal; and the photographer, Mike – sigh and unpack and slouch onto the fold-aways. Larry makes himself a peanut butter sandwich and says something about poverty and sustainable something or other. Then we sit quietly while the train rocks and barrels through the night, lampposts flaring outside and dim, distant cities flickering in the darkness.
It’s a surprisingly comfy ride, though the sudden stops and starts throughout the night wake us in a panic. In the morning the flat shrubbed plains of Tsavo National Park sprawl on either side of the track. A few gazelles lope alongside us; Faisal spots a pack of elephants kicking up a brown cloud in the distance. We stop in nameless towns where women disembark and stoop and strap infants to their backs. Barefoot boys chase after us; up and down the length of the train, small offerings fly out the windows: cookies, muffins, half-eaten sandwiches. At one stop Mike tosses a few pencils and a toothbrush to the kids milling below our window. He has a couple of old notebooks that he holds out to them, but then he wavers, reconsiders, and tucks them back into his knapsack.
“I’d rather give them to older kids,” he says. “You know, so they can use them in school.”
It’s such a sweet and futile gesture that it swells me with sadness. I picture a student hunched over his desk, scribbling with a spent stub of pencil in the margins of one of Mike’s books. What happens when he gets to the final line of the final page? What dim faith might flicker in his heart? It would take thousands of trips between Nairobi and Mombasa for Mike to make a difference, though he’s no different than the rest of us, inching forward, nudging the world’s hopes along with our good intentions. And the boys chasing these trains – the torn t-shirts and baggy pants, the eyes filled with dead, pale light – how far will those gray, blistered feet carry them? And what will be there on the day when they finally stop?