Nairobi to Mombasa: a tale of two journeys

Journalists Mike Elkin and Lucas Laursen took a commercial flight from Nairobi, Kenya, to Mombasa on the coast, around 440 kilometers away. Meanwhile, their colleague Jason Patinkin rode an overnight train and met them there. Here are their journeys.

Friday, 19 October 2012


JP: I am at the Nairobi train station waiting in line to buy a ticket. To get here I took a 30-minute bus ride and then walked 20 minutes through downtown with my luggage to the station, so I’m already dripping with sweat. There is one vendor selling tickets to Mombasa, and 12 vendors selling tickets to the smaller stations along the way.



Mike and Lucas take a nap. They’re couchsurfing in the posh Nairobi neighborhood of Westlands.


JP: Three people have bought tickets in the last 10 minutes. There are 12 people still in front of me.

M & L wake up. ¡Viva la siesta!


JP: I have a ticket! My third-class ticket cost 680 shillings ($8). First-class costs 4,405 shillings ($52), and second-class costs either 2,335 or 3,385 shillings ($27 or $40), depending if you get a meal.


M & L snack in the kitchen and go online to book two one-way tickets on Kenya Airlines Flight KQ608 for $150, scheduled to leave Jomo Kenyatta airport at 13:10 the next day and arrive at 14:10.


JP: The third-class car is rows of beige, faux-leather benches. All the doors are open and people wander around the train yard. I’ve staked out a double bench. This is my domain and I will guard it all night! Seriously though, Kenyans don’t steal shit the way people assume. You gotta be careful, but all these expats in Nairobi are all terrified of public transportation so they all take cabs.


Taking the advice of expats in Nairobi, M & L take a cab across town for 700 shillings for an interview.


JP: So much for guarding my space. A group of middle school students just boarded my car. I now sit with five 12-year-old girls. Everyone here is throwing their trash out the window. Not me! I’m part of the solution.

M & L get out of their cab


JP: The middle schoolers spent today on a field trip to an animal orphanage and the Nairobi National Museum.


JP: The children are staring at the laptop and hitting the buttons. The students say they were told not to bring food into the orphanage because of thieving monkeys. But they all took food in anyways and the monkeys stole their food.


JP: I give up all semblance of privacy while typing. I am surrounded by 43 middle schoolers. There are two teachers. There is no way to win.


JP: Oh thank god. The girls are back. They left about a half-hour ago and were replaced by eight boys who pestered me the entire time: touching me, touching the computer, touching everything. They tried to take my camera and repeatedly asked me who the first president of the United States was. Obvious disciples of Donald Trump, they asserted Obama was Kenyan. But the girls came back, and with some stern looks sent Trump’s boys on their way. Now there is peace. They even gave me some popcorn! I shared my cookies.

M & L finish their interview and call a cab to drive 1.5 kilometers.


JP: I am reading a book written about this railroad. It’s called “The Lunatic Express” by Charles Miller and it is the epitome of colonial, orientalist writing.


Waiting for the cab, Lucas reads JP’s updates on his cell phone. Mike wonders why the crescent moon points at the horizon.


Mike figures out it’s because he’s on the equator and the viewpoint changes heading north or south because of the curve of the Earth. So this hunk of rock really is round…


M & L ride a cab to a fancy bar called Slim’s and drink Tuskers beer. All the men in the bar wear collared shirts with the sleeves buttoned down, except for Mike, who wears a faded T-shirt, and Lucas, who rolls his sleeves to the elbow.


M & L finish their beers and meet some friends at a nearby table.


JP: The girls took control. They discovered my camera, and spent about 20 minutes taking pictures of each other. Then they started singing Christian hymns. The place is filled with all sorts of people now. You got your Maasai dude in red cloth and colorful jewelry, Muslim folks in their flat-topped hats and patterned wraps, uniformed Christian students, and dudes in windbreakers and hats and suits that don’t fit.


M & L eat croquettes and chicken wings. Mike grows nostalgic for wings (really, just the wings) from Hooters in south Florida.


JP: The children enjoy touching my arms. They are surprised that I have arm hair. I mean, I have a surprising amount of arm hair. One child is staring at me now. About 5 inches from my face. He’s totally fascinated. He’s watching me type this. I am confused.


JP: Some people hang plastic bags of their food from the railings above us. Brilliant.


JP: We rocked back about 8 inches. We might be headed out soon!


JP: Apparently not. Someone just walked by with a headlamp on the tracks.


M & L finish eating and go to their friends’ flat. They eat homemade bean dip on a candlelit balcony overlooking Westlands.


JP: We are moving!


JP: Muzungu is the Swahili word that

refers to white people. I do not like this word. The middle schoolers are talking about me. They keep saying muzungu. I explained it isn’t nice to talk about someone based on race. If they want to talk about me or to me they can use my name, Jason, rather than a racial quasi-slur. I think they got it.


JP: The most common sleeping strategy on the train is the “wrap your head in a cloth and lean back.” Others do the “lean back and pull your sweatshirt over your face” which is almost as ridiculous as the “lean forward on your knees and pull your sweatshirt over the back of your head,” which looks like someone was beaten up. Others do the “let your head sag forward and sway with the train,” “lean against the wall with your arm as a pillow,” and the simple “sit there with your hand over your eyes.” A child attempts the “slide under people’s legs and sleep on the ground.”


M & L do the “sit on the floor with pillows next to your beer and food” to watch a documentary on political activists in Kenya made by a friend.


JP: There are four guys picking their way through the train’s aisles selling things. Three of them sell water, juice, candy, etc. The other guy sells neckties.


JP: There is a poster over a door: “STOP AIDS. FACE IT, IT STARTS WITH YOU.”


JP: The windows are open. I stood up and hung my head out. It was breezy and nice. Occasionally there is some smoke from the old train. One of the students said, “It is emitting fumes.” So formal! The vestiges of British teaching. I would have said, “Ah fuck! Smoke!” There are nine people sitting, standing, or lying down in our double bench area.


M & L go back to the balcony and drink cold beers before heading home.


JP: The lights stay on all night. Time to explore.

Saturday, 20 October 2012


M & L take a cab home.


JP: All right! I’m back! I’m pretty fuckin’ wired right now. I just spent the last couple hours chewing miraa (khat) with the four dudes who sell the water, juice, candy, and neckties. SO…I’m totally jacked right now. I also walked through the first and second classes, which are mostly empty. Now I’m in the dining car.


M & L hit the hay.


JP: Turns out the four vendor dudes spend most of their time hanging out in second class, so I chilled with them and bought a 50 shilling bag of miraa and chewed with them for a while. The stuff is bitter and terrible tasting but it’s a natural stimulant. You don’t swallow the leaves so it’s best with a stick of gum which absorbs the grit and helps with the dry-mouth. The miraa soaks into the gum until it becomes a rubbery tasteless glob and you start over. The train guard passed around a cup of whiskey. A passenger showed up with a beer. He’s a truck driver who ships goods to Burundi and South Sudan. Whenever we reach a stop someone opens the door and jumps into the night where a few campfires burn under the stars.



JP: In the dining car it’s just me and a picture of His Excellency Mwai Kibaki, president of the Republic of Kenya. Sometimes the headrest falls on my neck and I think someone has attacked from behind and I will die.


JP: Holy shit. The train is almost empty. Even all the students are gone. When I walked into third class, I thought I was in a dining car. I hadn’t recognized it because there were so many empty benches. Also, it appears no one touched my stuff at all, so chalk one up for humanity over paranoia.


JP: When we make a stop, someone at the station holds up one of those large loops that the conductor on the train then hooks with a little pole or something. I watched that in a documentary in high school about the trains of India and how that was a dying practice as things became automated. This track was built by people from India during Britain’s conquest of East Africa. Everyone on the train is sleeping except for me and two other guys. The three of us hang our heads out the windows, watching the night, spitting miraa. There is a slight mist and the dewy drizzle feels good against my face. The train doesn’t move too fast so I can duck the branches that have grown close to the rails. The air is fresh, like the coast, but we’re still eight hours away. There is a faint headlight, and light from the windows, that line up in an arc when the train turns and I can see its tail behind me. The windows every so often light up the huge base of a baobab tree. Then, as we move past it, its trunk and branches are thrown into relief against the sky’s many blacks. If you look at them directly they disappear, like the beginnings of the Northern Lights. When I stick my head back out the rain has stopped. I hope it comes back.


Lucas punches Mike in his sleep. Mike rolls over.


JP: It’s around dawn. The world is shadowy and visible. We are in Tsavo National Park. People who are awake are at the windows scanning for wildlife. We saw a troop of monkeys. The land is broad and broken by gullies and hills and a large plateau in the distance. The vegetation is endless acacia bramble. This is what I think of when I imagine the railway: A difficult, spreading terrain where workers faced malaria and man-eating lions.


Mike gets up to pee in the dark, and miraculously aims well.


JP: We have stopped in Voi, which I think is the largest town we’ve been through. It’s among these great hills that stud the plain, curving slopes that rise into mists. Voi seems to have all sorts of housing: big mansions on plantations, simple concrete square buildings, some multi-floor apartments, shacks, huts, etc.


JP: I’ve been on this train for over 12 hours now and I haven’t pissed once. This train ride is almost a full day of my life where I’m nowhere in particular. Just moving. I’m in a non-place.


JP: Warthogs!


JP: The land out there is like a wasteland. Just sand and dirt and leafless dry sticks.


M & L wake up in the same place. Mike takes a hot shower while Lucas eats a breakfast of toast and bananas. They take their malaria pills with bottled water. Mike pours himself a bowl of raisin bran.


M & L pack and call Julius the neighborhood cab driver to pick them up.


JP: Am very tired. Using blanket as pillow. Land looks lush, cows and goats grazing.


M & L en route to the airport. It’s Heroes’ Day, so traffic is light. Uniformed soldiers and children assemble at the football stadium before the parade.


JP: My phone is dead, which worries me, because I don’t really know where to go in Mombasa. I just spent the last 45 minutes on the train setting up a Gmail account for a cool young kid on the train. All right! Technology!


JP: Little kids run by the train. They are barefoot and just run right over all the little rocks by the tracks without slowing down. The rocks look sharp. I thought little third-world kids got excited seeing white people, but really they just like trains and buses and cars.


JP: Gmail kid offers me some shoe polish. His leather sandals are shiny. My hiking boots are not. He is classier than me.


JP: Dude with a guitar wandered past, saying “jambo hakuna matata.” That’s how you know he knows you’re kind of a tourist.


M & L arrive at Kenyatta Airport and check in. A group of Spaniards on safari try to cut the line because “they are a group.” Mike tells them that is a dumb excuse.


JP: There is a huge area excavated for an airport. We run parallel to a highway with large trucks. Mombasa is a port city. Inlets come into view, but no Indian Ocean yet.


JP: The guitar man has woken up and is singing to me.


JP: I’m taking pictures of him. I feel like such a tourist. I’m sure I’ll have to pay him.


JP: Yup, he’s playing that “Jambo nzuri sana” song. I’m a tourist. I have failed. Fuck it.


JP: I paid him 21 shillings.


M & L pass through security and wait at the gate.


JP: Gmail Kid says we are at the station now. He’s got my back. I introduced him to Gmail.


JP: The station is a collection of old rail cars and warehouses. Gmail Kid asked if I know his friend Victoria from Germany. I wish the world was that small.


JP: Piled up shipping containers. Gonna spend rest of time with head out the window breathing the industrial-coastal air.


M & L board the plane. Lucas is in window seat 31A, Mike is on the aisle 31B. He chats with Victoria in 31C.


The plane takes off. For once, Nairobi looks calm.


JP: Passed dusty roads, highways, semi-trucks, shanty towns, housing developments, and mudflats with fisherman huts. Goats grazed in the train yard. Came to the end of the line, hopped off with Gmail Kid, and we walked into town for about 10 minutes. Some confusion over where we were going. He had no money, which was strange. Turns out he was traveling alone. I gave him some shillings for a bus home, then I wandered into a cell phone shop where I’m now charging my phone and figuring out how to get to the backpackers in Nyali.


Flight attendants serve bags of macadamia nuts. Lucas asks for another bag.


The plane squeaks to a landing. A pair of monkeys race past M & L on the tarmac. They text Jason (M&L, not the monkeys) the location of the backpackers.


JP: Phone charged. Taking a tuktuk to a matatu station.


M & L get a taxi to the backpackers in Nyali. They drive around the city center, across the bridge, and into Nyali. They ask for directions at the Reef Hotel and soon find the correct gate next to the Sunrise Resort.


JP: Waiting for a matatu.


M & L check in to the dorm room. There are several travelers staying at the backpackers, in bathing suits, hunched over laptops, drinking Tuskers. Welcome to the Mombasa chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.


JP: The matatu driver does not know where the backpackers is so I just got out. I asked someone on the street where it is. Just gonna walk there.


Lucas suntans by the pool while Mike practices his backstroke.


JP: 21 hours and 49 minutes after arriving at the train station, I walk into the hostel wearing two backpacks and a thick layer of sweat.

Jambo Jason!


Safari in the city

Nairobi National Park abuts the city, so we took a half-day tour, courtesy of Tracy, a Couchsurfer and local guide. In the first few minutes I saw my first wild giraffes. In the next few minutes we got stuck in the mud:


While we were trying to use some branches to get traction and get out, a troop of baboons came into sight. Tracy had said “watch out for lions” when we first got out and the feeling reminded us a bit of the first Tyrannosaurus Rex scene in Jurassic Park, as Mike pointed out. But we had time to get into the van and close the doors and roof before the baboons arrived. They didn’t seem especially interested in harassing us. Nor did any lions appear.

After a few calls we persuaded a desk ranger to send some field-ranger colleagues to rescue us. They gamely pulled off their boots and socks and got in the mud to help us push the van back out. We returned to animal-chasing. One of the first, once we reached the savannah, was a warthog:

There were also a handful of groups of giraffes, each with two to six members.


The night of the mini-matatu

Spaniards are famous for asking, on arrival in a new place: ¿Y por aquí dónde se sale? – And where do people go out around here? In little over a week in Nairobi, we’ve got some initial answers and may have added our own little twist.

Anjali suggested a Japanese restaurant, Onami, in Westgate, a mall in the Westlands neighborhood, our first night in town. We didn’t know it then, but we’d return often to Westgate. To my sensibility at least, it’s odd going to a bar inside a mall. For Mike, it’s odd just being in a mall.

The next night, a Friday, we met with a couple of British journalists, David and Richard, at Gypsy’s, also in Westlands. It had an outdoor terrace and interior tables, a bit more like home, and we made our way through the big three Kenyan beers: Tusker, White Cap, and Pilsner. The waitstaff asked whether we wanted our Tusker, which is a lager, warm. Another little culture shock. When the hunger set it, we drove to Klubhouse – K-1 for Kenyan grilled meats (nyama choma). The place is actually a gated complex with a few bars, a giant television screens, open-air picnic table seating, and waitresses in schoolgirl uniforms. One also wandered around in a cowboy outfit carrying hard alcohol in holsters, selling shots. Our meat took forever to arrive and in the meantime a pair of women from a UN agency introduced themselves and asked to join us.

Our Couchsurfing host Ruthie, who works nearby, joined us at Klubhouse but her mind was already on the next stop of the night, a dance club. She drove Mike and me to Rafikiz in Langata where people danced between tables or lounged between dancers. After a couple songs the beat changed and Ruthie threw her rump in the air and her arms forward. Before Mike’s jaw could hit the floor, other woman on the dance floor did the same thing. Some grinded their asses into the nearest groin. Ruthie explained that the song was Jamaican, popular in Kenya, and that all the women did that every time the chorus came on. At first we thought it was just a coincidence, but the song played again just before we left later that night and the scene replayed itself. We spent the next week looking for the name of the song so we can use it’s devastating power appropriately (or inappropriately). You’re welcome:

A lot of the social scene in Nairobi, at least among the expats we’ve been meeting, seems to replay itself. On Sunday we followed a tip to go to a café that turned out to be in Westgate, and we bumped into Anjali. By Tuesday, we knew someone who was going on a date at Onami’s. Many people told us about a place called Brew Bistro, where we celebrated Mike’s birthday. On Wednesday, a couple of people independently told me they were going to Havana’s on Thursday. When we went there the next day, we recognized one of the UN women from the week before and bumped into a source we’d interviewed earlier the same day.

Our source, Joe, happened to own a miniature matatu. As we left, we decided to give Nairobi a little culture shock: Mike drove the matatu while I hung from the open sliding door banging the roof and touting the open seats. “Mbao mbao!” The rest of our group, which outnumbered the seats in our mini-matutu, clambered on board. We banged and shouted our way through the traffic and laughing crowds, careened around cops on a corner, and clattered to a stop in front of another bar.


Most of the group made it to the entrance, but we saw Joe’s silhouette back at his car gesticulating in the headlights of passing cars. Two armed figures approached him. As cars passed, we lost sight of the trio. When light hit them again, Joe was still at it. One figure stood still like a statue while the other matched Joe move for move. They fell into shadow again. When Joe emerged, he told us our little ride had made one cop mad and the other laugh, and made them both 750 shillings richer. The wealth redistribution didn’t end there: inside, someone snatched a mobile phone from the front pocket of someone in our group. But when they tried it on Mike and me we managed to bat away the prowling fingers. Call us the Madrid matatu mafia.

A matatu tout speaks with potential passengers on a Sunday morning.

Life in Langata

Mike arrived in Nairobi a day ahead of me and sent a text message with his new Kenyan mobile number and the number of a driver our hostess recommended. Teddy, the driver, drove me from Jomo Kenyatta International through some smoke-clouded, dusty avenues to Langata, a neighborhood in the southwest of Nairobi adjacent to Nairobi National Park. He left the pavement while my eyes popped at the small stands where people sold fruit, fried fish, tailored clothing, and added credit to M-Pesa mobile money accounts. Teddy’s car barely made it through the mudholes and dips in the dirt road but he showed no signs of worry. He pulled up outside a fairly recent-looking concrete apartment block, pictured.

Our hostess, Ruthie, is an IT manager at a bank and has hosted lots of couch-surfers before. Already at the place when Mike and I arrived was an American couch-surfer named Ric who’d been there a while. There are guards at the entrance and until Ric insisted, there was no lock on the door. That was the first hint that security here works in a very, very different way than what we’re used to.

We’ve been using the matatus to go into town and from town out to a couple of neighborhoods we’ve been frequenting: Westlands and Kilimani. Here are some matatu photos Mike took:

A matatu tout speaks with potential passengers on a Sunday morning.

Passengers aboard a matatu.

Mzungu in a matatu.

Journalism from around the world