12 January 2007

Are we there yet? A Christmas story.

Lamu. A small island off the coast of Kenya. The guidebook made it sound like paradise. And it was….once we finally got there. We knew the trip to Lamu would be long…but nobody could have predicted the adventures that found us on the way there…and back. But we’ll start from the beginning.

Bushara Island

Our Christmas holidays began early on the morning of December 20th. Laura and Jovenice had been visiting from Rubingo (another ACTS project site). Jovenice works with the Rubingo agriculture program, and had a great time visiting the Bwama nursery and trying some muzungu (white person) food – pasta was a particular favourite! The transformation from raw to cooked was unlike anything she’d seen before. The four of us were up before sunrise – a little sluggish, having stayed up late the night before visiting with Bryony’s friend Suzannah who was on the island for the night – and made it off Bushara by 7am.

In Kabale, we headed to the bus park and were chased – in our taxi – to the buses by the multitude of bus employees hired to convince us to take their bus. The bus drivers added their two cents by flashing their lights and honking their melodious horns. Bus selection is always a tricky thing, especially since no one can be trusted to tell the truth: “This bus, it leaves in 10 minutes! Only 10 minutes!” But will it leave? Not likely. Will it be 30 minutes? 2 hours? Who can say? After several nail-biting minutes of discussion, bartering, empty promises and several people trying to grab our bags from us and put them on buses, we made our choice. We loaded our bags on the bus and got on. Shortly after, the other bus began pulling away and we thought we had made the wrong choice. But no, the other bus was only pretending to leave, hoping to entice more people on. And then, we left!!! We were quite pleased with ourselves, having spent only a mere 10 minutes sitting around. And our bus was fast! And rarely stopped!


8 hours later…. we arrived in Kampala. There, we met up with Katie, Tanessa, Melanie, and Joël who would all be travelling with us to Nairobi. While in Kampala, we decided to check out Garden City Mall, in hopes of seeing a movie on the big screen. No movies tempted us, but the mall itself was quite the experience. After three months away, we were quite stunned when confronted by the wealth and consumerism of this western-style mall.

Kampala to Nairobi

December 21st, we caught a very civilized Akamba overnight bus to Nairobi. It was the nicest bus we’ve been on in Africa – fewer seats on the bus meant more leg room and less squishiness with the person beside you, and, it had…a scheduled departure time.

The trip was fairly uneventful in retrospect, though at the time, we were quite shocked when our bus decided to cross a median to pass a stand off where two vans were facing each other on the highway for reasons unknown. There were also moments on the unbelievably bumpy road linking the two capital cities when we thought the bus could have tipped over. Thankfully, it didn’t.

We were somewhat surprised to arrive in Nairobi at 6am, seeing as we thought we would arrive at 2am. No matter. We said a quick goodbye to Joël, who was continuing on to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, as he chased a bus down the street, which still had his luggage on it (he did meet up with it again eventually). We were met by a hostel employee who took us to the hostel we had booked, thinking we were arriving in the middle of the night. We left the others to sleep and shower, and went exploring. Nairobi is considerably more westernized than Kampala, and not as scary as we thought it would be.

We found a great café, the Java House, and had some real coffee, and then joined up with the others to head off to the Giraffe-a-rarium.

The Giraffe Centre is a sanctuary for endangered giraffes that is supported by a booming tourist attraction where people can feed giraffes at head-level from an elevated platform. Quite entertaining actually, and pretty fantastic to have the opportunity to be so close to a giraffe.

Nairobi to Mombasa

We were excited to board a train for this leg of the journey, a relic from British colonialism complete with quaint train station, real silver, and men in white jackets.
A brief scare at the station when they didn’t have our tickets because we’d booked through a tour provider, but all was well, and we were soon settled into our bunkers. Dinner was delicious, our bunks comfy, and barring a midnight flood in our compartment, the sleep was restful.

Mombasa to Lamu

We arrived in Mombasa 3 hours late the morning of December 23rd.

Eileen, a friend of Bryony’s from University working in Kenya, met us at the station. We were now a party of 7.

Buses to Lamu were not to be found. Not surprising, considering the closeness to Christmas and lateness of our train. Therefore, we started looking for a matatu (minibus taxi) to take us to Lamu. We had rented matatus before as a group, and didn’t anticipate any problems, seeing as we’d heard from Kenyans on the train that the trip was a mere 4-5 hours.

After some intensive bartering, our newly-hired driver took us to our ride. And a sweet ride it was. The matatu was pink in colour, with sparkles, had a purple interior, fringe on the visors, was outfitted with black lights, and we’re pretty sure those were pimps that were stencilled on the outside. We thought we were on our way, until we pulled into a gas station where our three “drivers” (actual driver, conductor, and random other guy) tried to get more money out of us. Something about the wheels needing to be realigned and them wanting lunch provided. We stood our ground – we’d made a deal. And after threatening to find a different matatu, we were on our way again…only to make another stop, this time for the conductor’s license. Interestingly, he never actually drove.

Finally, we were on our way. For real this time. The trip was relatively uneventful until we got to Malindi, where we stopped briefly to pick up snacks, just a few stale cookies, as we thought Lamu was just around the corner. As it turned out, we were still many corners..and many police checks..away.

We sailed through most of the road blocks, except for one. This police check was more a congregation of army personnel. We were accosted on all sides by soldiers informing us that we could go no further without two armed guards, on account of “shifters”, who were to be employed by us for the low low price of $30US. There were several things about this situation that seemed…sketchy.. and were making it tricky to tell lies from fact. Why were other vehicles being waved on without armed guards? Why $30 US dollars, an amount many many times a daily wage? Why 2 armed guards and not 1? Why were they saying it was another 180 kms to Lamu when, surely, we had to be almost there? After being told they weren’t going to force us to take an armed guard, but not being allowed to continue without one, you could say we were quite frustrated. And by this point, Bryony had to pee. Quite badly in fact.

We finally agreed to one armed guard. So, man-with-a-gun hopped in, and we were off. Shortly after we were sure we should have been there an hour ago, we turned off the main road. The road to Lamu! The road…no words to describe it really. As we were flung around the back of the matatu, accumulating bruises, Bryony’s bladder threatening to burst on every impact, we kept thinking we would see the ocean…any minute now.

After an hour on this road, Bryony couldn’t handle it any longer. We pulled over and several of us hopped out to pee in the bushes. We were warned not to go too far…shifters, perhaps?...and also to watch for snakes. Thank you, man-with-a-gun.

Our hopes of arriving in daylight turned to hopes of arriving at dusk…and were eventually shattered as the stars came out and we were still bumping along in the pink matatu. At this point…we all secretly began to question whether this was in fact the road to Lamu. And then a hyena ran across the road…to which the man-with-a-gun commented, “this is lion and hyena country”. Awesome. Thirty seconds later…our matatu ground to a halt. There had been heavy rains which had left the road deeply rutted by heavy trucks. Our little low-slung matatu was not up to the task and had bottomed out…leaving us stuck…in “lion and hyena country”. Awesome. We offered to get out and push, but our team of three would have none of it. After much looking under the matatu with a flashlight…they had us disembark and attempted to free our matatu with a friendly truck and a crappy fraying rope – which broke. We were not surprised. Meanwhile, we hung out with man-with-a-gun who comfortingly informed us, that there would be no more boats heading to Lamu that night. We started envisioning ourselves – all 7, sleeping in our two 2-person tents on the dock, surrounded by shifters. Awesome.

At this point, we insisted on pushing…not surprisingly, the stuck matatu was no match for seven Canadian girls, and we managed to dislodge it in a matter of seconds.

On the road again. We received a phone call from the manager of the hotel we had booked on Lamu wondering whether we were still arriving that night. We hoped so. We asked how far we were from Lamu…and were informed a few kilometres – which we told the manager. We were almost there!! An hour later, there was still no sign of Lamu, and no reception for our cell phone to inform the hotel manager that we were in fact, more than a few kilometres away.

Finally, we arrived at a town with buses that appeared to have come from Mombasa. We must be close now! Unfortunately, our “team pink matatu”decided this was a good time to skip the last police check. Not too impressed by this decision, the police pulled us over and had a rather lengthy discussion with “team pink matatu”. After which, the driver approached a window and said, “We are all arrested”. ?!?!??! Why??? He informed us, “For arriving after dark” – unlikely the truth. After no avail of trying to get Melanie to pose as his wife…the driver told us the officers would like to speak with us. A few of us ventured out of the matatu and into the police compound. Insulted, the officers told us “If we had wanted to talk with you, we would have come to the matatu – we have legs.” Great, we’ve now irritated the police officers. So, we retired to the pink matatu, to wait with man-with-a-gun, who has turned out to be…no help whatsoever. We frantically tried to get in touch with the manager of the hotel again at this point…with no luck… As we began to picture spending Christmas in a Kenyan jail cell… “team pink matatu” miraculously returned - as far as we could tell, our actual driver had no license (why we stopped for conductor’s license when he never actually drove is still a mystery).

We were almost there – this time for real! We arrived at the ‘dock’, although there was no dock in sight. We grabbed our bags and paid “team pink matatu” – who to their credit did not request additional money, despite our suspicions that they used most of their profit to bribe their way out of the final police check. We asked man-with-a-gun to walk us to the dock, as many shady, possible shifters had appeared on the scene. As we walked between transport trucks, we began to wonder if man-with-a-gun was actually on our side…so we had our knifes at the ready – just in case. But we made it to the dock, and shortly after heard “Emily Anderson, party of 6?” from a boat pulling up. We were going to make it to Lamu that night afterall…we have never been happier to get into a boat.

Overcome with relief, we enjoyed the stars as we sped across the Indian Ocean to our final destination – Lamu. We were quite the sight upon arrival (which was 9:30pm) but as we had last eaten at 6am on the train, we were more focused on finding food than freshening up.


We woke up on Christmas Eve, ready to explore and find out whether Lamu was worth all the hours of travel.

Final tally?? Bushara – Lamu: 15 minute boat, 30 minute taxi, 8 hour bus, 15 hour bus, 15 hour train, 8 hour matatu, 15 minute boat – total? 47 hours, not counting lay overs.

Our first full day on Lamu began with a walking tour – led by our self-appointed guide, Bagi. Lamu is an old Swahili town of winding narrow alleys and white-washed buildings with an abundance of cats and donkeys.

Yes, donkeys. Donkeys are inherently funny for several reasons: as if a healthy animal can make that sound – “hee-haww” doesn’t quite capture it, their ability to look completely dejected as they stare off into space, and the fact that a normal human being can walk three times as fast.

We became intimately acquainted with this last point when we hired seven donkeys to take us to the beach at the other end of the island. Never again. Donkeys are quite uncomfortable to ride, incredibly slow, and generally make you look like an idiot. Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves but politely declined the offer of a ride back to town.

The beach, though beautiful, proved to be somewhat of a bust since it started to rain shortly after our arrival. So we walked back to our hotel. Along with Eileen, we passed on Bagi’s “birthday party”, which seemed to be a regularly scheduled event whenever there were large groups of tourists – a way to make some extra cash on an over priced meal. Instead, we enjoyed a meal at one of the many restaurants along the waterfront serving fresh seafood and delicious fruit juices. The food was fantastic, although we experienced our first taste of “Lamu service” when we requested our bill and the waiter arrived with the menu, paper, and a pen - so that we could write our own. Interesting.

Christmas day we rented a dhow – a wooden sailboat, captained by our friend Bagi.

We sailed, went deep sea fishing (where half of us became seasick) and then landed at our own private beach on a neighbouring island where we swam and snorkelled while Bagi and the crew made a delicious lunch of fresh fish, coconut rice and curry.

Quite a contrast to Christmas in Canada. Very relaxing indeed.

We arrived back at Lamu just in time to catch the tail end of a traditional Swahili wedding tradition in which men in the wedding party…hit each other with sticks. Intriguing. We headed for dinner, back to the same restaurant for more tasty seafood. Unfortunately, the service was almost non-existent. It took an hour for the waiter to tell us that they didn’t actually have the ingredients for the juices we had ordered. The bananas were “coming. Soon.” Only, when the bananas arrived, they were oranges. So we changed our order to things they claimed they had, along with some water. Our food came and went, with no sign of juice, or water. Meanwhile, everyone else in the restaurant, most of whom had arrived after us, had all received juices. The juices never did appear….we finally quenched our thirst after going up and taking a bottle of water ourselves. Frustrated, we decided to head for one of the few restaurants that offered an alternative to instant coffee. With some real coffee and real ice cream, we ended Christmas 2006 in high spirits.

Boxing Day was, of course, spent shopping. We enjoyed exploring all the little shops down the various alleys.

A high point was visiting Slim Silversmith, who had beautiful silver jewellery, and pictures of Oprah and the Queen in his shop. Slim himself was quite the smooth talker, but we managed to strike a good deal. That evening, we enjoyed some more Lamu service….in which Katie’s appetizer arrived 20 minutes after everyone else’s main courses.

Our last day on Lamu was spent visiting a Swahili museum and relaxing on the beach. Lovely.

Lamu to Mombasa

December 28th. We could not believe we were already packing up for the long journey home. Hadn’t we just arrived?!? After a most restful night lying awake listening to the soothing bray of donkeys, we scrambled to make it to the dock in time to catch a ferry to the mainland to catch our bus. Another bus. Oh joy.

We were positive that the large bus would make it to Mombasa faster than our little matatu. No such luck. We endured several unexpected and unappreciated long stops, for reasons unknown. We were crammed into narrow seats, the aisles packed with people, and with four kids playing “poke the muzungu” in the seats behind us. And oh my word, was it hot. So hot in fact that we bought some sketchy popsicles through the bus window. At this point, we didn’t care what kind of water was used…. luckily, no gut rot. Yet.

On the way, we received a text from John, who was on the train to Mombasa from Nairobi. The train had not moved for several hours, on account of flooding. They weren’t even close to half way there, and John was doubting if they would ever arrive, so suggested we start looking into buses to Nairobi, as that was the train we were supposed to be on that night. Just our luck….

Sure enough, upon arrival at the Mombasa train station, we were greeted with the news that the train was cancelled, and there wasn’t going to be another for four days. Oh my. So, Emily patiently but persistently fought for a full refund from the train people, Bryony and Katie headed off with a friendly taxi driver to check for space with every bus company, Tanessa went off with some random strangers to check out flights, and Laura went on a hunt for water. We were a well-oiled machine.

Things were not looking good. The train folk were having trouble getting a refund due to the fact that we had booked through a safari company, and Bry and Katie were discovering that all the buses were booked not only for that night, but for the next day as well. Just when we thought we were doomed to stay in stinky Mombasa for who knows how long, Bryony and Katie were victorious!! There were six spots remaining on…. “Exciting Coach”!! Yes, the name of the bus company sounded..odd..but we were assured it was “just like Akamba”, the company we had taken from Kampala to Nairobi. So, we decided to save a few bucks, and take the bus instead of flying. As they say, hindsight is 20/20…Exciting Coach was a bad choice.

Mombasa to Nairobi

After a lovely sojourn at the Blue Room, a delightful restaurant and internet café, we made our way to the Exciting Coach “offices”. Ok, smelly shack in the ghetto of Mombasa where it smelled like human feces. Mmm. Once there, we were assured that our bus, scheduled to leave at 9pm, would arrive “shortly”. 9pm came and went, and we started making bets as to when it would actually arrive. Sometime later, a very grotty looking puke green bus with the words “Video Coach” on the front pulled up. Thank goodness that wasn’t our bus. But wait! What’s that it says on the back? Exciting Coach! Oh no.

The fact that we had assigned seats meant nothing whatsoever as a mad shoving match began for the unmarked seats. When the dust settled, some of us found ourselves in the most uncomfortable seats on the bus (29 and 30), and others next to random Germans. Most of the seats were reclined at an awkward angle, and unimaginably uncomfortable, making sleep tricky at the best of times. Seats 29 and 30 were not reclined at all, sitting at a lovely 90 degree angle, with the reclined seats in front of them shoving nasty metal bars into your knees. Meanwhile, the seatless children who were sitting in the aisle next to seats 29 and 30 periodically fell asleep on your legs, or if you were lucky, as Bryony was, grabbed your inner thigh and held on for dear life as we were all tossed around mercilessly by the insane road linking Mombasa and Nairobi, which notably, are Kenya’s biggest port and capital cities.

Before too long, we found ourselves stopped in a traffic jam of unknown cause. We knew things were bad when the bus turned its engine off. After some waiting and speculating, we were eventually informed by a random stranger that there was a bus up ahead with 2 flat tires who had parked so as to block the road as protection from “bandits”. Safety in numbers you know. Are you serious?!? Once again, we found ourselves thwarted by crazy shifters….

2 hours later, we were moving!! And then not. What now?!? Our bus driver was not about to wait around and find out, as our bus lurched off the main road onto…well, we’re not sure. Whatever was beside the road. Let’s just say Exciting Coach was not an off-roading vehicle. Shortly after passing the exploded and flaming mac truck (the hold up), sitting next to a squashed bus, we started to run into some trouble with mud, as it had been raining heavily for the last few hours. Our driver did a formidable job, getting us out each time we thought we were stuck for good…until we were passing by a crowd of people lining the main road (presumably passengers from the squashed bus), when our tires were definitely spinning and we were finally defeated. Up until this point, we thought the offroading had been a surprisingly good idea. We now pictured ourselves doomed to join the squashed bus people lining the highway, passing the night waiting for our bus to be dug out. Mass chaos ensued, during which no one was really sure whether we were supposed to be on the bus or off it. Laura got off, mainly because she was in front of a pushy woman very eager to disembark. The rest of us enjoyed the excitement from our seats, Katie yelling “Come on Exciting Coach! You’re excited. Come on, big boy, you can do this!” out her window while other passengers pushed. To our surprise, Katie’s cheering worked. We were free!! We drove victoriously back onto the main road, Laura chasing behind, pillow in hand.

20 minutes later, we were stopped again, our engine steaming. Apparently, offroading was not so smart. Most of us fell asleep, only to wake up in daylight, still stopped with our “mechanics” at work, our bus in pieces. Would we ever arrive in Nairobi? Laura started asking how far it was, wondering if we could walk. More bets were made as to our estimated time of arrival. At this point, we had been on the bus for 10 hours of a 9 hour trip. 4 hours later, with stops every half hour or so to fill our radiator, we finally made it to Nairobi.

We asked many people directions, finally putting our faith in a woman who led us in what felt like circles, but finally got us back to our hostel. It was a euphoric arrival, followed by an afternoon of sleeping (horizontally!), much needed showering, and another visit to Java House.

Nairobi to Kampala

Months sooner than we would have liked, it was time to board our next bus. But Akamba! What luxury!! We spent the first 10 minutes, at least, pointing out all the differences between Akamba and exciting coach: leg room! wider seats! with padding! reclining seats! seat back pockets! even a cup holder! overhead compartments that actually contained things, thereby preventing them from falling on people’s heads! foot rests! It was almost heavenly…but then again, we were on another bus. The novelty soon wore off and we were ready to get off. Luckily, the only incident on this leg of the journey was a flat tire, quickly fixed. We even managed to sleep a bit.


It was fantastic to be back in Uganda, away from crazy police checks and sticky heat. It was December 30th by this point, and we hadn’t had a full night’s sleep since the 27th, on Lamu. We got to our hostel and crashed. After a few hours sleep, we went to check out the Kampala Carnivore Restaurant. As the only bushmeat on the menu was over-priced zebra (which apparently tastes like horse – yum), we passed and went for the cow. We reunited with Tyler who had been with John and his family for Christmas, and with Bryony’s friend Suzannah. Many stories were shared.

We woke up on New Years Eve 50% sick. Bryony and Katie were sporting sexy voices and less sexy coughing, sneezing, and general snottiness. Emily had a variation of this that included a fever and dizziness. But, we headed to the mall anyway, hoping to catch James Bond with Tyler. Unfortunately, we missed James, but settled for Denzel Washington in one of the more horrible, but surprisingly entertaining action flicks we’ve seen. Then we did what everyone wants to do on New Year’s Eve – searched for an open clinic to get tested for malaria, a good safety precaution if you have a fever. Apparently, it’s not a good idea to get sick in Uganda on a public holiday, as all medical establishments, including hospitals, observe these holidays. So we settled for a home-test kit for malaria from an open pharmacy. Good news! Emily’s test was negative. There was now nothing standing in our way of a rocking new years… oh yeah. Except we were still sick and felt like death.

At this point, we were joined by Ryan and Joël, our two Kilimanjaro conquerors. More stories. And then the festivities began. Emily fell asleep. Darn it. So we had to go out. We headed to a party on the grounds of the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Kampala for some fireworks and live music…all of which was lipsynched (but still entertaining).

Of note: Tanessa and Katie getting up on stage and dancing during 2 of the acts, and the guys who were dancing dressed up as Saddam Husein, George W Bush, and Michael Jackson. An unlikely, but highly entertaining trio.

Kampala to Mbarara

Fittingly, we spent our first day of 2007 on a bus. We ended up split between buses, a toss-up as to which was better. Kibungo arrived first, but made us get off our already full bus and get on another before leaving, and then had us crammed in 6 over 3 seats, with chickens pecking our feet. Horizon sat around in the bus park for over an hour, but once on its way, was a relatively comfortable ride. Buses. Such a gamble.

Mbarara to Bushara

The next day, we decided to get tested for malaria in a clinic before heading back to Kabale. Double negative – we were both in the clear. Before we headed to the bus park, John arrived, the last of our crew to make it back from Christmas holidays. His stories may well have rivalled Exciting Coach, as he was stranded on the side of the highway trying to hire a matatu, along with the 300 other people from the train. Between the near-rioting and fights over matatus, it sounds like things got pretty nasty.

Jealous of the other interns who were all taking trucks back to their project sites, we headed to the bus park. There were no buses there heading to Kabale, but we were assured that a Horizon bus was arriving shortly. So, we sat and waited and drank a soda. An hour later, there was no sign of Horizon, so we got more proactive in our search for a bus, but were unsuccessful. You have to be careful who you trust in the bus park… at one point, we thought we had found a bus to Kabale, and the bus employee was ready to take our money and luggage, but on consultation with the bus company office, we found the bus was actually headed in the opposite direction, to Kampala. By 5pm, we realized we were not going to arrive at Bushara before dark, so decided to abandon our efforts and try again in the morning.

We were harassed endlessly until John and Joël came to pick us up. When asked for a smoke, Bryony replied that she didn’t smoke because it is bad for your health. As the man refused to believe her, he was rewarded with a talk on the dangers of smoking and heart disease. Unfortunately, this did not deter others from continuously asking us if we needed a bus, a matatu, a special hire, a husband..

The next day, we caught a bus…the worst Horizon bus we have ever taken, as we were crammed into narrow grotty red velvet seats with no leg room, jerry cans, tires and random other luggage wedged in around us.

We cannot begin to explain how happy and relieved we were to finally arrive on Bushara, early in the afternoon, January 3rd. It was good to be home. The final tally:

47 hours to Lamu. Journey home? 30 minute ferry Lamu to mainland. 8 hour bus Mainland to Mombasa. 15 hour bus Mombasa to Nairobi. 15 hour bus Nairobi to Kampala. 5 hour bus Kampala to Mbarara. 2 hour bus Mbarara to Kabale. 30 minute taxi Kabale to Rutindo. 15 minute boat Rutindo to Bushara. Return total: 46 hours, 15 minutes, for a total round trip of…:93 hours and 15 minutes. That’s almost 4 full days, mostly spent on a bus. Suffice it to say, if we ever return to Lamu, we will be flying.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey girls.
So your christmas 'vacation' sounded as though it was the most relaxing trip ever! haha.
Glad you guys made it back safely!
After 93 hours on a bus...good for you!!
Love you both and miss you!!!
God Bless,

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ladies! Glad you're safe and sound, and even more glad that I now have at least one other friend (from the photographic evidence) who's been lip to tongue with a giraffe at Nairobi's giraffe park. Good on ya :)
If you're ever back in Nairobi, I've had much better success at Nairobi's Carnivore - always at least 3 game meats on the menu.
Love reading your stories. Too funny!

Mike M.

10:24 PM  
Anonymous Jon Harris said...

I have really enjoyed reading your stories! May God continue to bless you richly and may you have open eyes to see God at work.

Peace, Jon Harris

1:21 AM  

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