“Rachel! I’m inviting myself over. Is that okay? Are you and the kids home this afternoon? I haven’t seen you in ages and I finally have a free afternoon.”
“Come on over! We’re here.”
“Cool – I’m leaving school in about thirty minutes.”
“Great! See you soon.”
So began my Tuesday afternoon. I sat a moment at my desk and gazed out the windows. The clouds were dropping and a heavy breeze moved slowly through the room. It would probably rain again. Traffic might be bad. But then, it is the rainy season after all and traffic is always nasty when it rains. We have had showers and storms almost every day for two weeks so there would be no avoiding it really. Might as well brace myself – sound the charge – jump into the fray. Even if it took two hours to drive the five miles to their house, it would be worth it.
At home, I traded my work clothes for jeans and a fleece jacket, heels for flip-flops, and my backpack for a purse. Hmmm, no cash in the house. Should stop at an ATM on the way so I can get gas. Driving to school in the morning, I had noticed that the gas gauge needle was very close to red. The warning light had not come on yet, but it could happen any time. No use taking chances. Especially with the potential bad traffic.
It was 4:30pm when I pulled into the gas station at the end of my street and smiled up at the attendant. “Jambo, bwana. Please put in 3,000/= while I get cash from the machine. I’ll be back in a moment.”
“Sorry madam, the machine is not working.”
“Excuse me? Are you sure?” He stretched up and craned his neck over the top of the gas pump to look at the bank ATM in the corner of the parking lot.
“Yes madam. Even now, there is a sign. It says ‘Out of Order.'”
“Okay. May I pay with credit card?”
“I am sorry. We do not take credit.”
“But you used to.”
“Very sorry madam. We do not anymore.”
“Okay … well … thank you. Siku njema. Good day.”
As I drove away from the gas station, the dark clouds above me swirled, slowly pressing their way towards the ground. Should I go anyway? It’s not far – I can probably make it there on what gas is in the car. But then, should I stop for cash? It’s not a great idea to go anywhere in Nairobi completely cashless. But stopping at a different ATM will take time and I’m already going to be stuck in traffic as it is. I’ll just get there as fast as I can and then stop for cash and gas on the way home. So I struck out into Westlands – into the awaiting vehicular mele.
At about 5:15, I had gone all of two miles and was at a dead stop in the centre of three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic – none of us were moving. Across the median, I could see that the highway in the other direction had also slowed to a halt. At least I had expected this part. What to do? Turn on the radio and wait. The rain tapped lightly on my windshield. I fished my phone out of my purse, glancing around for any random policemen. “Hey Rachel, traffic is pretty bad. I think it’s going to take me at least another hour to get there.”
“Hmm, are you sure you still want to come? Are you at a place where you could still turn around?”
“Nope. I’m surrounded on Waiyaki Way and nothing is moving. Besides, the next turn-around spot is still a ways down the road, and if I make it there I might as well come the rest of the way.”
“Okay, well we’re just heating up leftovers for dinner. If you don’t mind that, you’re welcome.”
“I love leftovers!”
I hung up the phone and turned up the radio. The rain had picked up a bit. Cars were inching forward and I thought about my gas situation. Hmm … do I turn off the car to try to save gas? What if I run out of gas just sitting here waiting for traffic to move? Better turn it off. I flicked off the engine and waited.
That’s as far as I got.
Ten minutes later, when the traffic began to inch forward again, I turned the key – nothing happened. My stomach dropped as I remembered. Two weeks ago, I stalled in an intersection and the engine wouldn’t restart for about fifteen minutes. It only magically turned on after a very nice couple stopped and offered to tow me home. It had happened in my parking lot two weeks before that, only starting when a mechanic came and jiggled the battery connections. He had wanted to come back the next day and take it to his shop, but I urgently needed the car and couldn’t deal with the inconvenience right then. Why didn’t I go back to the mechanic!? I knew that the car needed to be looked at. I knew it was unreliable. What was I thinking in turning off the engine? Why did I put off getting it fixed?
In any dramatic life moment, it always helps when Nature lends a hand in setting the stage. I was stranded in the middle of gridlocked traffic with no cash, very little gas, and (as i was about to find out) no phone credit. So, with the dramatic flourish only Nature can provide, right then is when all of the heavenly buckets tipped at once. It poured.
Moments like these are best savored in silence, so I flipped on my hazards, turned off the radio and simply sat taking it all in. It was 5:30. Horns behind me beeped as the traffic started to move again. I let them figure it out. Fifteen minutes later, the rain had let up a bit so I draped my large cloth purse over my head and hopped out of the car. Lifting the hood, I tried to do the same magic that the mechanic had managed to do a month before – I jiggled the battery cables. No luck. I tried again. Still no luck.
Now properly damp, I got back in the car and started to plan my next move. I stared at my phone, willing Rachel to call me. My powers of telepathy must have short-circuited in the storm – the phone wouldn’t ring. Then it dawned on me – call her anyway and when it cut out maybe she would think to call me back. Success!
“Rachel! I’m actually in a bit of a pickle now.”
“Do you want Brad to try and come give you a jump?”
“Traffic is so bad – you know what it’s like. And I don’t think it’s my battery because all the lights and radio are still working. If you could send me some phone credit, I’ll call my regular mechanic and see if he’s close by.”
“Okay – will do. Keep us updated.”
As I resettled myself in the car, I glanced in the backseat. My umbrella! How did that get there? Two little rays of hope – an umbrella and 150 shillings in phone credit.
I called my mechanic. He was already downtown (the center of the traffic vortex) and on his way home. He offered to call his colleague, but unfortunately he too was halfway home by then. He apologized and I assured him that I had others I could call. I hung up. It was 6:15. About an hour of being stuck and not a soul had stopped to help or even ask what was wrong. Now, there was something to ponder … but later. Who else could I call? I thought through my handful of mechanically-inclined friends. Jon – a fellow teacher at school – has had more car adventures than anyone else at school. Call to Jon. He called Robert, the head of security at school, who called the security emergency vehicle. Security was on the way … but how soon would they arrive?
“Madam! Una shida! You are having a problem? I am a mechanic. Let me help you. Open the bonnet.” A man bounded out from between cars and tapped eagerly on my window. He wore a long navy blue coat over multiple heavy layers of clothes, and a tattered baseball cap to shield him slightly from the rain. In his hands he held a large, bulging, white plastic bag, and a dented oil can. A crazy begger? Or a jua kali, working man who was walking home to save either time or bus money? In one long stride, he was in front of the car tapping on the hood. I popped it open and got out of the car hesitantly. Traffic was still stopped all around us.
Out of the bulging plastic bag appeared a wrench and four spark plugs. Okay, so maybe he is a real mechanic. He whipped out the old ones and screwed in the new ones. “Sawa madam, try it now.” I got back in the car and turned the key. Nothing. He took the wrench to the battery. “Maybe your batter is weak. The connection is very loose.” I tried again. Still nothing. He began banging on something with the wrench when my phone rang. It was Jon checking in and I told him about my new friend. “If it sounds like he’s banging on the engine, don’t worry. He’s probably banging on the starter – I would do that too.” Okay … if you say so.
My mechanic angel stayed with me for almost two hours trying everything he could think of, and anything he needed seemed to magically appear from the plastic bag. He flagged down other cars to get a battery jump. He pulled out his own home-made jumper cables. He tried the real cables offered by the cars that stopped. When he saw that it was a manual transmission, he decided to try to pop start it in second gear. Then he discovered I was low on gas.
“It must have enough fuel to start!”
“Bwana, I am very sorry, but I have no cash at all. I have nothing to buy gas. Thank you for trying but we can’t. I must wait for the security vehicle.” He glanced down at the ground looking everything like a fighter unwilling to be beaten. “Madam, I have 200/= ($2.50). I can go for petrol. It is just there.” He was offering to use the little money he had. When I nodded he turned, leaving his bag of tools next to me and the car. This was trust. About fifteen minutes later, he returned with his oil can of gas and an empty plastic bottle. Whipping out a pocket knife, he promptly chopped the plastic bottle in half, creating a funnel for the gas. Now that the tank was no longer so close to empty, he proceeded to to push the car by himself in the very short lane that had opened up around me. Not once, but six times. Forward, then in reverse. Forward, reverse, forward, reverse. Nothing.
By 8:00, the traffic around us had loosened and the end of the gridlock had shifted to about 300 feet ahead of me. We had managed to push the car to one side of the road so I was no longer sitting in the middle lane. It was still raining and it was now dark. The security vehicle still had not arrived. In Nairobi, traffic is traffic, even for emergency vehicles.
We stood in the grassy mud next to the car and I could tell he was disappointed. I thanked him again, assuring him that the security company was on its way and I would be okay to wait. Not that I was especially sure of it myself, but the poor man was wet and cold and needed to get home. I took his number and promised to pay him when I could get some money loaded on my phone. He hesitated again, then shook my hand and walked on.
I got back in the car and then thought better of it. If security was looking for me now on foot, it would be better if they could see me. But it was cold and the highway is not well lit. I leaned for awhile against my car, holding the umbrella and watching the traffic go by; eventually I got back in the car to rest and warm up.
Another tap on the window – a man in uniform. It was 8:30. Security had found me. A few minutes later, Robert also arrived. It had taken them all two full hours to arrive on the scene. Parts of Westlands were flooded and traffic was still thick. As they began to discuss how to get the car started, I leaped out of my seat. “No – we have tried everything. Please help me get a tow truck. That is the only way now.”
There is an intersection in my neighborhood where tow trucks hang out. These are “tow trucks” in the true African sense. Each is a reincarnated ancient beast of a truck, sawed, reinforced, and welded together, painted multiple colors, with heavy chains hanging off the back. They are also each operated by a team of three or four guys. Why all the extra hands, I wasn’t sure. I’ve wondered too about the location. Is that particular intersection a spot that gets them a lot of business? Apparently so. I had broken down not even a half mile away.
Two of the security guards walked up to the intersection and came back with one of the trucks. After a short discussion about the destination, the route, and the price, a couple guys hooked a heavy chain to the underside of my car and one of them hopped in the driver’s seat to steer. I happily climbed in Robert’s car where the heater was on. He and his son had not even been home yet – I was thankful they had come.
At 9:30pm, the four-car caravan set off – I was finally leaving the highway. If I could end this story here, I would. But no, the adventure is never over before it’s over – not until you’re safely tucked into your warm bed, and even then, who knows what could happen. You could find yourself shaken awake by an earthquake. But wait – that’s a different story, and this adventure still had another twist ahead.
The tow truck started off in front, dragging my car behind it, Robert followed, and the security company vehicle brought up the rear. We made it a mile. Half-way home, again stopped in a new gridlock, the tow truck ran out of gas. Yes. It’s true. Though it sounds like better fiction than fact, it actually happened. The tow truck ran out of gas. And I discovered why each truck has three or four guys operating it – one to drive the truck, one to steer the car being towed, and one or two to help push or go for gas when needed. Robert pulled his car off the road and we waited while the tow truck men sorted out their issue. In that time, traffic didn’t move an inch. When they got their car restarted, we decided to turn the whole caravan around and go a different way home. Once again, the extra guys had a job. How else would you turn around a car on a tow chain on a two-lane road clogged with traffic?
10:15pm – five and a half hours after leaving my apartment, I was home again. Five and a half hours, two miles, and a small chunk of change later, I was very ready for food, dry clothes, and my bed.
The moral of the story? Jeans are heavy when wet. Or something like that …