|Trucks, Planes, and a Drunken Judge
from On a Mission from DOG--A Woman's Walking Adventures in Africa
Twenty potential passengers hang around the faded yellow truck, waiting. I lift myself up and stand on the edge of a back tire to see what we'll be carrying for the ride to Marsabit in Northern Kenya. Bricks. Rows and rows of narrow gray bricks line the bed making a repetitive pattern of gaping holes. If you have large wide feet, your shoes can easily straddle the sharp cement edges. But if you have narrow paws like DOG...
A sheep is pulled by its front leg to the people selling tickets. Fortunately for the animal, livestock can't be carried on this particular truck. When it does travel the five hour journey, it'll cost fifty shillings, less than a dollar. When it's time for me to pay for DOG, there's no charge. They've never taken a mzungu or foreigner with her dog, and it's just too perplexing a problem for them to ponder.While a few of my village friends look on, I haul DOG over my shoulder and clamber smoothly aboard. Once inside, I extricate my camel saddle padding from a passenger who's using it as cushioning from the coarse bricks. No way am I sharing. Since I haven't been able to use the saddle on this trip, I'm definitely using it now.
The engine roars to the accompaniment of swirling dust, passengers precariously shifting places on the cement bricks. The morning is pleasant with a warm breeze. But there is no awning covering this truck, and as the sun rises higher both men and women cover their heads with scarves to avoid the unforgiving glare. A young girl who has been amongst a gaggle of women now moves closer.
"Oh, look at the lovely dog!" she cries standing over us, her deep brown eyes taking in the padding. She moves closer, creating an elaborate theatrical scene with herself as the star and DOG as the supporting actress.
"Oh, the dog is soooo clean," she coos, tentatively stroking small areas of DOG's back. It's a conniving way to get a corner of our padding and I pay little attention. The other passengers find her amusing.
"Oh, what a pretty dog," she gushes, fawning over DOG while shooing the tsetse flies away. I continue to ignore her. But for her piece de resistence she unwraps the fine blue veil that covers her hair and envelopes DOG, just as mothers do to protect their babies from sun and insects. There are frowns, and her audience feels she has gone too far.
This is a dog, not a baby. DOG however, is an opportunist. If this woman intends to keep the flies and sun off her, she isn't about to complain. When DOG adjusts her position underneath the netting, the girl cries in alarm, but only becomes genuinely nervous when DOG turns to face her. I keep my eyes on the padding.
The truck lurches laboriously over lava rocks and the girl lays down on the very edge of the cushioning, easing herself into a spoon position around DOG.
"Do you have a camera?" she asks coyly, her bedroom eyes fluttering. She and DOG are a sweet sight. And she knows it. But when she falls asleep, her hand is resting gently and naturally on DOG as if DOG were her child.Many miles later, the girl maneuvers herself more and more onto the padding. This means DOG is getting squeezed off. Enough. I sit up abruptly, changing positions with DOG so that it is me she has to push off the padding, not DOG.
Five hours after the trip began, we disembark. Not one word is exchanged between us, Neither does she bid fond farewells to DOG. Days later with a decent map, I measure the distance travelled. Fifty miles. It took five hours to travel fifty miles? No more public truck rides.The next evening I sit on cold, hard cement waiting for a call at the public telephones in Marsabit. A group of kids stare at the mzungu and her dog. I yell them away. A few minutes later an enraged mother returns in their place.
"Who do you think you white people are? You're the reason Kenya is in a mess. First you take over our country and now you yell at my children!"I grit my teeth and continue waiting. I've had enough. After being in Northern Kenya for two weeks, it's time to go home. The question is, how? No one from the organization I came with is returning to Nairobi where I've lived for four years. What other options are there? Crammed and packed in the back of a public truck for two days? I'm not putting DOG through that again. Or myself.
In the next booth, I overhear a well-dressed African woman say, "I'll be coming back to Nairobi with KWS, I'll call you when I return... "
"Sorry to intrude but did I overhear you saying you were getting a ride with Kenya Wildlife Services?" I ask the woman. "Do you think there'd be any room for me? And my Dog?""I don't know, but I think so.""Do you know if you're stopping in Isiolo?" I ask cautiously, remembering the transit hub with horror."Isiolo? No, we fly straight through to Nairobi, it takes about two hours."Fly? Fly!! An airplane ride??? Oh my goodness, this is too good to be true! When her husband is free, he suggests I see him at the courtroom the following morning to make arrangements. He is a judge.
The next morning I approach him in a little office."Ah, it's my mzungu friend!" the rotund judge announces to his friend. "We're just going to have lunch at my house, come join us."
The judge's house is a sparsely furnished grim cement building. Their lunch is the triple vodka with soda variety. Light on the soda. They pour copiously. I sip stingily.
"My wife will be here soon, and then we'll eat. My friend here is a teacher."
"You're from America?! I want to go to America," the teacher announces."I want to stroke the doggie," the judge interrupts, looming over DOG. DOG is nervous. I squat down to explain by demonstration how best to approach DOG--on her level. DOG eyes him suspiciously. The judge is wary and backs away. The house is claustrophobic, the vodka lethal for my empty stomach and I'm late for an appointment with my translator."You must go this afternoon with my wife to the park!" the judge announces."I'm not sure if they'll let DOG in... " I reply hesitantly. But of course I can--I'll be with the judge's wife.
The Kenya Wildlife Services driver tears along the rough dirt track into Marsabit Park and DOG and I bounce around on the hard back seat. DOG looks at me mournfully.
"It's for an airplane ride," I whisper to DOG apologetically. We're accompanied by a KWS ranger who carries an I-mean-business rifle. After forty-five minutes we come to a lake. Above us, vervet monkeys screech our arrival and on the opposite side is what we've come to see--elephants. It's an entire herd and young babies frolic near their mothers. But we're not out of the Land Rover for more than two minutes when I sense the judge's wife, for all her gushing enthusiasm and awe, restless to return to the vehicle. So after spending less than five minutes with the largest land mammals on the planet, we climb back into the Land Rover for the forty-five minute drive back. We stop at the main lodge and the judge's wife announces we'll stay for dinner. I thank her profusely and feign an earlier engagement. We agree to meet at eight the following morning at the judge's house before departing for the airstrip.It's been a long day and I want to give DOG a rest while I do errands, and get dinner for us. I leave her in the hotel room. The errands take longer than I anticipate, but finally I have our chicken dinner. I could use a beer too. I drop into a little bar, hoping they do to-go.
"Hello!" slurs a man sitting at the bar. It's the teacher from this afternoon. He looks like he hasn't stopped drinking since then."Sit down, have a drink!"All I want is to go back and eat dinner with DOG. With the teacher is a small weasel-like man who dashes and stumbles around his friend. And since now I'm a friend of the teacher's, the Weasel begins dashing and stumbling around me. I decide to skip beer completely. Thanking the teacher for his offer I leave, escaping onto the wide dirt street. The Weasel follows and dances around calling to anyone who'll listen, "She knows Leakey! She's one of the Leakey's!"I shake my head and walk on. I pass a house with a donkey outside, it's legs bound together, and a dog guarding both. I sigh with relief. This is the first time I've gone any distance without DOG by my side. There's no need to make sure anyone pesters, throws rocks at her, or that she's attacked by other dogs. I love her dearly, but this is a welcome break while she sleeps. Deep in contemplation, I sense someone behind me on the path and step aside to let them pass. It's the weasely Leakey lover."Tafadali," I say to him curtly, making it clear he should walk in front. He stumbles past but after a few minutes pauses, feinging to look over a fence. "Where are you going? Can I help?" I ask sharply."The Bishop's house," he slurs.When we get to the crossing where he should turn, I walk briskly the other way. A herd of cattle, a few donkey's and sheep veer into the lane and I take the opportunity to dodge through the bovine barricade and race up the path to the hotel. Behind me is an empty driveway.Inside, DOG and I greet each other enthusiastically before I remember my clothes drying on the line. I open the door. There swaying before me is the Weasel. He's surrounded by the four dogs who supposedly guard the hotel. They gaze at him adoringly between licks. DOG growls."What do you want?""I just want a glass of water.""No! You were following me."He has a hang dog expression."You shouldn't follow people." I feel I'm talking not to a man, nor to a child, but to a misbehaving dog. He appears not much larger than the Doberman slobbering at his side."You have to leave.""Can I have a glass of water?" The water's a ploy, and I'm not falling for it."No, you cannot! Go ask at the Bishop's house for water."The hangdog expression hangs lower. I point my arm in the direction of the driveway. "GO!"He snivels. If his eyes were in the head of a dog, I would be running not just for water, but for my chicken dinner. But these eyes are in the head of a grown man. "GO!!!""Ok, ok," he mutters, holding his hands up as if I'm threatening to throw a rock. It is definitely time to leave Marsabit. Instead of brilliant morning sunshine, a gray pall hangs over the streets as I heave my bags through the wooden door of the hotel. They weigh a ton. A heavy mist has been falling for hours and the red soil is wet and clings to the bottom of my shoes. The short trek to the judge's house suddenly takes on a more frantic feel as I trudge and wallow along the empty, muddy streets. DOG trots easily ahead despite layers of mud on her paws. Half way to the judge's house I ask a security guard at a closed bank if he can watch my belongings, and we continue along the muddy track a little lighter. The streets are strangely devoid of people and cars.
The two men working as houseboys smile in greeting and guide me through the cluttered kitchen to the bedroom where the judge lies fully clothed on the bed."Hello mzungu," he slurs. "Come sit in the chair, you can move it closer to the bed."No, I cannot. I smell a rat as well as alcohol. There is no wife in sight, and I don't see any of her belongings, or bags ready for travelling."Where's your wife," I ask in mock cheer over the din of music playing from a small radio by the bed."Oh, she'll be back," the judge replies. "Soon the car will take you to the airstrip. Do you want breakfast?"No, I just want to get on the plane. As with the day before, the atmosphere is heavy and stale. DOG is not happy about being here either.
The judge's body smells bad, the air smells bad, and the concrete the house is made of smells bad. But it is not yet eight o'clock, the time we'd agreed to leave the house. I will wait. The judge warbles on about what he'd done the night before."We ate dinner at the lodge, but it was so boring," he whines. "This is the most boring park I've even seen. There's no animals, I was soooooo bored.""But it's beautiful, don't you think?""Look," he says, pulling out a track-suit and proudly showing me the label. "It's made in America.""That's great," I reply, and reverse my path through the confining and dangerous atmosphere of the bedroom, through the filthy claustrophobic kitchen and into the living room where another radio, tuned to another radio station blares towards the porch. A wall of fog stops the music from leaving the house. The judge follows me like a lost puppy."I want to stroke the doggie," he pleads, looming over DOG. DOG is nervous. Again, I squat down to explain how best to approach DOG. But the judge's rotundity combined with his blood-alcohol level makes squatting unfeasible. He stumbles towards a chair to resume his mindless chatter."My boys love their dogs. We have Alsatians."We'd had this discussion yesterday. It is now approaching eight thirty. I'm restless and the judge excuses himself to go back to bed."Make yourself at home, the car should be here soon."I have my doubts. I approach one of the young houseboys."His wife left already," he confides.I walk away from the house fuming. DOG trots beside me, happy to be leaving."What an asshole," I mutter to DOG. "He purposefully screwed with me. Damn, now what are we going to do? They had to drive along this road to get to the airport."A quick calculation meant that it must've been before seven thirty when they'd left. The agreement was we were to meet at eight o'clock. Why hadn't she waited? A moment's recollection of the house answers my question. She'd probably been as desperate to leave as I.The wet sky is slowly falling, turning the air leaden. There is still no one walking the streets and not a car in sight. As I near the bank, a Land Rover drives down the hill towards me. I flag him down."This is an emergency, can you take me to the airstrip?" In my mind, this is an emergency. He agrees, and signals for me to get in. My bags..."Can you reverse? I have a few bags at the bank."He says he'll drop off the child sitting next to him and then return. Damn.I walk back to the bank, get my bags and stand in the middle of the street, the fine drizzle covering me like a shroud. Damn. What if he doesn't return? What if he's been invited in for tea? I need another car. Is all this a futile chase? Will the plane already have left? I pause, looking down at DOG. I will get to the airport.After a few minutes, as good as his word the man returns. DOG goes in the back along with the bags, and we're off. As we reach the airstrip I see a Kenya Wildlife Services plane standing idle on the runway. Nearby is the KWS driver in the Land Rover from the day before."What happened? I must've just missed you," I say, my voice heavy with sarcasm. He opens his mouth. He obviously didn't expect me to make my own way here."You'll have to ask the pilot if there's room," he mumbles.The pilot sitting in the cockpit is looking none too pleased at a potential glitch in his routine flight plan. This is the first he's heard of some mzungu chick and her dog flying in his plane."I'm with the judge's wife, is she here?" I ask cheerfully. My determination to be on the flight completely annihilates any concern of etiquette. If I'm putting the judge's wife on the spot, so be it. The pilot turns and surveys the passengers. Slowly a head appears from behind a seat. Long exquisitely painted nails wave in greeting, followed by a sheepish smile. A few quiet words are spoken before the pilot acknowledges there's room."You're lucky, normally we leave earlier," says the pilot as he helps with my bags. "We've been waiting for the fog to clear."DOG doesn't like the metal stairs that lead to our freedom, so she leaps from the tarmac clear up to the top step, running ahead of me to claim the entire back seat. Her feet, as well as mine are filthy with mud. I surreptitiously pull out the saddle cushioning and lay it on the floor for her to sleep on."So, where's the stewardess that comes round to give us hot tea?" I ask brightly to ease the tension in the small plane."You're it," replies a man at the front. Everyone laughs."And how is the judge?" another man asks."Sleeping," I reply hesitantly.A chuckle is the response. After half an hour we take off, despite the fact we're still fogged in. The roar of the engine fazes DOG not a bit. I take off my jacket, put it on the seat next to me and she jumps up to join me. She peers out the window, but cloud completely covers the land. To DOG, this is just another ride in a new vehicle, and she promptly curls up and goes to sleep.