"Look what the train dragged in," Brent says. We’ve been in Amsterdam for nearly twenty minutes now.
I hear the metal as it emerges from the black and stops in front of us. It carries a figurehead of feathers and blood - which I presume to have been a hawk at some point. The corpse falls onto the empty tracks as the train jolts up again, and the other patrons step back. Nature had violated their space.
After two weeks of being surrounded by elephants and wildebeest in Africa, I was back to the complete absence of non-human wildlife.
Awe and terror can be such familiar feelings…
How strange it is to be anything at all.
- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Jeff Mangum
The storks come and they go, awkwardly maneuvering their disproportionate body parts until they reach their companions in the acacia trees overhead. Back home, the crows gang up too but even they look more appealing than these African counterparts. It’s just all so foreign here in Kenya. Perhaps it’s the twenty-eight hour disconnect from home or the low flow showers. Perhaps its this traffic - it’s been ten minutes since we’ve moved.
My eyes feel heavy, but I’m busy awing over the enormity of the pseudo-pterodactyls to fall asleep. I’m also Wangu's only company in the idle car. In the backseat, Brent had found a comfortable position in that nook between the seat and the door, and he's gone.
"The Chinese are fixing dis roads, it’ll be betta by next year…maybe," Wangu says, the Swahili accent making her even more dignified. It’s amazing what willpower does to a person.
The truck ahead of us vomits out its fumes. A macabre sign that we’re finally moving. We pass the roundabout where the root of the problem seems to be to see a lone police officer clotting the traffic flow with his misguided hand signals. He coughs with each truck that passes by. “De Chinese will take dis parts out,” Wangu says with a hint of spite in her voice.
The road gradually changes from asphalt to dirt. The trees are hungrier here, and in place of the storks, shirtless men reside under the starved branches. The entire landscape is a musty brown bar the red Coca-cola ads. At roadside, women piggyback babies while using bare hands to cook maize. I can’t recall seeing a maize field (or any vegetation at that) for nearly fifty miles.
Delving deeper into the middle, I realize that the city is laid out like a unicellular organism - a wealthy, endoplasmic metropolis surrounding its accumulation of waste. Only a single line of factories or a shanty railroad separates burbs from slums, and once inside, there’s very little space to escape the nausea. An overwhelming mustiness stagnates throughout the air as if all the bad of the city perpetually leaks into it. At some point, the road had disappeared and replaced with a landfill of effluent, rocks and gravel instead, and among the contamination, thousands of Africans sell donated clothes and electronics. I see a blue sweater in there somewhere.
"So this is Mukuru," I say.
"Dis is Mukuru," Wangu echoes.
Twenty minutes later, we park our car and introduce ourselves to a group of colorfully adorned women. At one point, I assume they radiated much more than they do now, but rape and unwanted pregnancies can do a lot to a person - it must be stressful to think no one but you is going to truly remember your memories. But when Brent emerges from the car with his Karate gi on, the women suddenly become elated. On a small patch of concrete behind the centre, he teaches them self-defense, and while most of them exuberantly mirror Brent’s maneuvers in the air, a few of the women laugh and prance around with the occasional sexual advance. Wangu tells me later that glue is the most abused substance in Mukuru.
Afterwards, several of the women take my hand and guide us through the barred gate, past the spectators, into the city. It’s strange, but Mukuru exhibits a different aura behind a car window. With the ground beneath my feet, the abodes feel more vibrant, more energetic. The people come and they go, shouting mzungu (white person) at Brent and I as we pass by their African favelas. Barefooted children run up and ask me to take pictures of them before running away, their toy cars - a plastic bottle with four bottle caps attached to it - trailing behind them. Despite everything, people still smile, and it’s hard to accept the initial discomfort anymore.
Electricity doesn’t run, nor the water, but the people still do. As the sun takes its daily route down the horizon, everything except the primary colors of the denizens seem to muddle together. When we depart back into the city, a mob around a police station prevents us from moving beyond a crawl, and Wangu advises (or rather demands) us to roll up the windows. We find out later that a child had vengefully been killed for stealing. A cyclone of dust is kicked up as we force our car through the masses, and as we drive on, the dust eventually devours everything until all I see is the faint silhouette of the crowd struggling together like a single organism.
Twenty-three years older, and I still can’t place myself anywhere.
I had successfully escaped Tokyo - its garish demeanor and unearthly rhythm – and traveled north to rearrange my jumbled sense of humanity. Within Hokkaido’s staggering spaciousness and evaporating mountain peaks, a small town in Otaru tempted me to stay with its old-world simplicity. Quaint reconstructions of English architecture overshadowed the land, but to the dismay of westernization, small fish markets defiantly survived between the cracks. In this space, fishermen reigned.
I was the lone ranger of a generation too young or too old; even so, the vendors enjoyed my new face and naiveté towards seafood. They directed me to a local sushiya, where inside, the golden wood interior and a vibrant array of fresh fish greeted me. After a few seconds, the chef emerged from faded curtains - a man in his mid-20s. The townspeople had played a cruel joke on me.
But the craft ran in his blood. He molded my sushi with amazing grace and diligence, every piece a work of art. After a few sakes, we stumbled through conversation until I asked him about his age. He smiled. “I decided to stay,” he responded. He had an obligation to carry on the family business. Yet, in his self-possessed manner, he seemed perfectly content, and the elegance of his movements showed he cared. We returned to small talk as I savored the rest of the meal.
As I stepped out into the night, he shouted at me.
“Ganbare – Hang in there.”
I unconsciously nodded, whether to comfort him or myself, and headed out. As I rounded the corner, the ocean suddenly splayed out before me. I thought of turning back, but gazing into the nothingness past the horizon, I lost myself again.