By the time I post this, it will have been a few days since the attack on Mpeketoni, Lamu. By now, I assume anger will be more directed, grief more sedimented, mourning in progress, as waves of feeling assume more legible configurations. I had planned this trip to Mombasa before Mpeketoni, hoping to find ghosts from another time, muscle-making memory.
Mombasa exists as bone—deep certainty: flashes from a multi-family trip, a train journey, yellow scrambled eggs, a plane trip; another trip, later, in a fantasy family unit where I was the only child, a tan that did not fade; and yet another trip, by bus, white sands, a picture I used to attract gay men in the U.S. Mombasa exists as the high school trip I did not take, the sex-saturated space described by Richard Meinertzhagen and Evelyn Waugh, later to be repeated by sex tourist sites and half-policed by a sex-sells, tourism-money-loving state. It exists, metonymically, as the place that produced the guy with the largest cock in bible school.
It takes new shape now—as I wait to board the train—as the sullen beauty of the young man mopping the floor, as sound bites from an overly-loud TV, as the two navy-blue-suit-wearing men gnawing through boiled maize, as a train that was canceled on Friday and re-booked for Monday. As a cascade of memories from public sex sites that describe cruisy bathrooms in train stations, anonymous encounters in train berths, impossible promises of reciprocal desire.
A train—not mine—is on the platform. I suspect it dates from the 60s or 70s. Its rust-embossed roof and glass-free windows do not inspire confidence. I imagine that what is now the Railway Restaurant—my current perch—might once have been a waiting room, filled with the aggravatingly apprehensive voices of those attempting to civilize through plunder, to rape and reform.
A man enters the restaurant, beckons a staff member as one would a recalcitrant child, demands milk.
Don’t take the train, a friend warns. It will be unlike any other train experience you’ve ever had.
As you arrive into Penn Station, Baltimore, from the south—D.C., Virginia, other souths—the train begins to sway violently, enough to make the unaware standing stumble, even fall. One enters Baltimore on a shudder, a gasp, a sharp exhale. Trains teach you how to ride them. They produce bodily dispositions—ways of standing, holding, sitting, swaying. They produce time and space, the shape and feel of travel, the experience of geography, of the geographic and the un-geographic.
The un-geographic because a random website advertising this particular train ride invites potential tourists to live out their colonial fantasies. Fantasies sustained by the English-only signs at the station, by the broken clock in front of me, permanently stuck on two past two, by the strange wood paneling.
The resonant voice of the train announcer—a resonance more than familiar from Baltimore’s Penn Station—“trains” me. Unlike flight announcers, who always sound tinny and frantic, train announcers resound with the confidence of long-lived mountains, sure of their authority. A good train announcer inspires awe and confidence; an average one provokes anxiety; I have yet to encounter one who is less than average. Perhaps it is that train conductors produce geography, seemingly with the ease of a deity shaping a world. Places seem to fall out of their mouths only to appear in unfolding landscapes and seascapes and cityscapes and otherscapes.
And, here, with the exception of the Mombasa-bound train I am on, the announcements for all the local commuter trains have rung out with a place-conjuring Swahili:
Kahawa, Kikuyu, Kibera, Ruiru, Embakasi
I’m in a private berth, a wonderful luxury, were it not for the loud laughter from other, too-near berths. Still. This is more privacy than I’ve ever had on a plane. And I was in boarding school. I know how to sleep with others.
I have switched from purple to pink ink and will, at some point, switch to black.
Already, a little mosquito has kissed me.
Again, I am reading Baldwin. This time, “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South”
An interruption: dinner
- Minestrone soup from a packet—I know my knorr
Veg Fried Rice
Our server, Mirriam, is a woman with a story. She strides magnificently, sullenly, serving plain white rice and tasteless vegetables. The meat follows, served by Charles.
An obnoxious white woman keeps saying, “asante sana, kijana,” proud that she has mastered this infantilizing patter. Every so often, she fouls the air with her speech.
Mirriam smiles—she has found Kikuyu-speaking passengers. The trip, delayed at this point, offers her a glimpse of something familiar. The vegetables are tasteless. In this, the trip—still to leave the station—reminds me of recent plane trips. I eat because I want to sleep, not because the food is especially good or interesting. The fruit salad consists of—count them—six pieces of fruit—papaya, watermelon, and tangerine. One imagines this particular version of a fruit salad failing an audition for fruit salad. The couple seated at my table—I’m politely ignoring them while eavesdropping—are unimpressed by the meal. “This is not coffee,” the black man guide announces to his white woman companion. English is not her first language, her accent announces. Their conversation is one of those wonders of half-sentences and benign intentions that sustain tourism.
After an indifferent dinner, I am more than ready to return to my berth. To wait for the train to depart from Nairobi.
Now, hours away from Mombasa, the soil outside is redder than I had imagined. Here, in the median between train tracks and road, the trees are smaller, diminished, poisoned.
I come looking for a particular silence granted to the stranger.