Tuesday, 22 November 2011
But for the Donkey: Life Lessons from a Beast of Burden
[Disclaimer: The donkey didn't make it. No use denying it]
As some of you are aware, I was slated to run the 5K fun run at the Masai Mara Marathon on Nov. 19th. That was step one in my 'get fit regime', which was to culminate in the Kilimanjaro Half-marathon in February 2012, and supplemented with me training with the Impala Club Soccer team. All of this was to be supplemented with a personal work out routine. That was the idea, at least.
Let me rewind, first. The whole idea for signing up for this 5K run came out of a 'carb-loading' dinner, at a friend's house. They were carb-loading for their pending run in the Nairobi marathon the next day. I was just there to eat. During the conversation, people started wondering what race they should do next. I personally thought that they should just focus on finishing the Nairobi Marathon (safely, given the penchant for random grenade attacks at the time). One person piped up and said that there was a marathon in the Masai Mara. This piqued my interest. Not the running part, you understand, the opportunity to check out the Mara, which is a world-famous landmark, and home to some of the stunning wildlife that people associate with Africa. I am fairly sure, at this point, that I was the person who insisted that this Masai Mara Marathon was something we should do.
Whether or not I was the ringleader, I was definitely interested, and spent the next week looking at the website, reading about the course, reading terrible online 5K training regimes, and generally getting pumped up about the whole thing. As is per usual, I began to package this whole idea into something that made sense to me, that I could control. Or so I thought.
Firstly, the number of people that jumped onto the Masai Mara Marathon Mzungu Parade was large! It started out as a group of 3 or 4 friends, and swelled to about 15 people, most of whom I think I knew. And as the group grew, I became less and less centrally involved. All sorts of interesting things started to happen. Two of the group hooked up at a party, but one of the 'participants' wasn't fully interested, and decided to head home from the party early. The other 'participant' was thoroughly upset about this. So, she decided to hire a taxi, follow the gentleman home, and give him a mouthful of abuse about the whole situation. To the point that the guy had to lock himself in his own apartment. Sign #1 - these two people somehow were selected to ride in a car together, and that car happened to be driving me as well.
But, this story should really start with the logical starting place - registering for the race. Or, at least our repeated attempts to register. First we tried the easy way - register online, and pay with 'M-pesa' (the revolutionary way of transferring money over cellphones). But, when we tried to get an M-pesa account, the 'network failed'. Or something. No worries, let's try and register the old-fashioned way. Wait, the deadline is 2pm, on a weekday. That was impossible for me, but my friends try and go anyways. But wait, the registration place DOESN'T TAKE CASH. Or credit card. So we miss the deadline. But no worries, we can register late, we're told, come tomorrow, we're told. We go to the main office the next day (Saturday). We wait. We wait. We are told that the office is not open on weekends. Finally, on Monday, a friend managed to get her M-pesa account to work! Sign #2, when a race is impossible to register for, maybe you shouldn't, after all.
My preparations for this excursions were typical. I put my running shoes in a corner, piled my socks, shorts, tshirt, and other random 'running' things together. I packed the bare minimum of food, and as much water as I could. I weasled my way out of having to buy anything substantial, as I could borrow a tent, a sleeping bag and a mattress from my work. I was packed, and ready to go, two days in advance (basically). Over this time, things at work continued to be utterly awesome. I got a few assignments - on Police reforms, Judicial Reforms, and got drafted out to a trip to Machakos, the day before we were to head out to the race. Sign #3 - Work, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly gets more awesome (if that's even possible), but you are forced to only produce superficial results, because of feeling pressured to leave early for this race, consider what one's priorities should be. Sign #3.5 - On the way to Machakos, if a professional driver narrowly avoids getting in an accident, call yourself lucky, and try and avoid bad driving situations in the future.
I show up at the meeting point, late, slightly stressed. No worries, our ride is out getting a spare, spare tire (good to be prepared). The rest of our group is there, not really getting along. I've already mentioned the awkward love situation. It was not helped by the fact that my roommate got frustrated with the other girl, and in a fit of exasperation, sent a text saying 'this girl is driving me crazy'. That is, sent it to the girl in question. Perfect. Good vibes. Sign #4, when your rag tag group has conflict before you even hit the road, perhaps engage in some form of dispute resolution before venturing on.
We finally get on the road, after somehow managing to fit 5 people's belongings into a small car. Good thing we bought enough food for over a week (that's being sarcastic). Spirits are high, this is an adventure! Until we hit a huge traffic jam. As we crawl along, it becomes apparent that the major hold up is a massive collision between two lorries. As we drive by (after hopping onto the sidewalk), I notice a cart with grass on it. I ask my colleagues - 'isn't that a donkey cart?' They all laugh. Sign #5 - Don't laugh at car crashes with donkey involvement. Sign #5.5 - horrific crashes = be very afraid of driving in Kenya.
Now we are on the highway, flying. Things are going well, but I think people are a little anxious to get to the Mara - after everything, we've left an hour late. Sign #6 - don't rush, because there are relatively few things worth rushing for. Travelling at about 120km/hr, on a straight stretch of road, three donkeys sprint onto the highway, about 100m in front of us. Our driver does a great job of slamming on the breaks and keeping the car in control. Two of the donkeys keep running, and are well away. The third donkey decides to stop, or slow down. We hit the donkey, travelling at about 70km/hr - fast enough that bounces off the hood and slides up off of the car, but not so fast that it crashes through the windshield. Fast enought that a spray of brown sweat/dirt from the donkey slops against the windshield. Fast enough that the radiator system is destroyed, sending radiator fluid gushing out of the bottom of the car, like it's bleeding. But not fast enough that there is any noticeable damage to the engine. Fast enough to fatally injure the donkey, but not fast enough to kill it quickly.
Time passes. We sit on the side of the road, waiting for assistance, unable to get through to the police, or when we do get through, struggling to communicate properly. Our rag tag group is struggling to stay together. Well, not struggling at all - there are certain people that are dead-set on continuing on to the Mara, and others that don't want to leave the scene, and our poor driver, who is distraught, both about killing a donkey, and totalling her car. The mood is slightly lightened by the steady stream of maasai farmers, goat herds and cattle herds that wander by and stop to chat. It is also helped by digging into the mountain of food that we stockpiled for a weekend trip. The donkey has passed, and we drag it off the road. A herd of donkeys approaches their fallen comrade, and the ensuing braying is both heart-wrenching and nerve-grating.
Time keeps on moving. We still are uncertain about how long a tow truck, or the police, are going to take to come, or if they are even coming. I flag a matatu, and persuade two of our group to leave. They continue on to the masai mara and to the race, and hopefully have a good time (or at least a better time than they had sorting out their unfortunate (non-)love story). I have now befriended a 25 year-old Tanzanian Witch doctor, who is showing me random herbs that can cure gout, others that are used for psychotic and/or epileptic episodes, and the small cuts on his arm that prove his powers. He's actually really nice. Samson, a mechanic, is suddenly now a part of our group. He tells us he can fix the car. He is carrying two wrenches and a vial of super glue. Our driver gives him some duct tape, and he starts banging away at the car. The car starts, but the attempted fix of the radiator fails (surprise!). I end up paying Samson for his troubles.
The police finally come. At the same time as the tow truck. Haggling ensues. The person that does vehicle inspections is off for the night (by this time the sun is gone, and we are fully feeling out of our element). We are going to have to stay in Ntulele. No, we really, really don't want to do that. Luckily, a woman's tears are a good bargaining tool. They agree to drive back to Ntulele, fill out at abstract, and write a letter to the police in Nairobi, who can do an inspection later, on Monday. The car is loaded onto the flat-bed tow truck, and we drive, sullenly, to the police station. Amazingly, the police are fantastic, affable, and, it seems, not corrupt. We leave after 15 minutes.
Our driver and I are forced to ride back to Nairobi in the wrecked car, on the back of the flat bed. I find a bottle of gin, and we pass the time. Not too far into the ride, we notice that there is a flashcard taped to the dash. My roommate, who is learning swahili, just for fun, had made a bunch of flashcards of swahili phrases (rated R), and plastered them all over her dashboard. To avoid embarrassment, our driver had taken all of them off, all but one: "punda wewe" ("You Donkey"). Sign #7 - Language is powerful - don't put swearwords on your car involving donkeys.
We are all healthy, and everything is ok. The donkey is not. But my thoughts go out to it. Next time Ganesh will be on the dashboard, and I will make sure that I don't travel with such a motley crew. On the same day, our driver finds out that she has to restart paying her student loans, under the following logic: if she was making less than 15k in England, she qualify for low-income deferral, but because the 'standard of living' in Kenya is 'so low', they've reduced that amount to 6k. I don't follow that reasoning. Regardless, terrible timing. And then she has her camera stolen later on in the night, so no photographic evidence either. You'll just have to take my word for it.
my roommate, and Javier Merelo)