Getting to Juba by bus

Epic Journey from Nairobi to Juba, By Alvin Gachie.

On my way to Juba, I was sending text messages to my family in Nairobi, and I have used them to make this tale full of twists and turns to the faraway land…

28/10/2010,
9:40 am “Just boarded the bus..it’s so spacious! Only problem is, I’m in the second-last row from the back! All’s well though, since I stayed awake last night I hope to SLEEP!”

When you’re coming to Juba  make sure you’ve booked your bus ticket well in advance! In my last-minute Kenyan mind I was sure I could even have booked the bus ticket on the very morning I planned to travel. If I had done that I would have had a rude shock. I would have found the bus completely booked! This time I made sure I had booked ‘early’ (one day before) and found only four seats vacant…at the back! So I booked seat J4: second last from the back, a window seat. I’d get a first-hand view of the surrounding terrain on the road to the unknown land.

10:03 am “…I’m reading the paper now..so I can have something to dream about!”

I was told the journey would be extraordinarily long..have you ever traveled for 2 days straight? And I’m not talking of a journey by air where you’re counting the hours in the airport also. The bus journey counts for almost 2 days seated! I’ve never done that before, so for me this will be a real adventure! I had planned in advance what I was going to do the whole way; my number one hobby – apart from traveling – SLEEP! Last night I starved myself of sleep watching a movie called ‘Case 39’ and also watched ‘The Last Airbender’ (overrated movie by the way) so that I would be so tired and sleepy that I would just black out in the bus.

10:11 am “… just left the parking in (Nairobi)”
10:20 am “…leaving Nairobi, in the bus heading along Waiyaki way…I’m so excited! J I can’t wait to see what the stretch from Kampala-Uganda to Juba will be like.. But so far so good!..”
11:34 am  “Now at Naivasha… the stretch of road we’ve just been on has a spectacular view of the Rift Valley… breath-taking! And it’s pretty chilly as we go along, especially as we were passing Limuru highlands..”

Well, my sleepy plan did not work out too well: I kept waking up! Good thing I was awake, because the view of the Kenyan highlands is breathtaking, especially as we looked down across the Rift Valley and its beautiful expanse. I’ve seen it many times before but truly, every time I see it is a new experience, on my way to a different destination, so every time it has a renewed beauty. Absolutely captivating!

1:18 pm “We made a stop at Nakuru at 1pm. It has taken us a whole 3 hours to get here! Someone is taking sacks to Juba to sell. Many were brought in at Nakuru..off for nap number two!”

Another reason why I’m finding it hard to sleep is because this driver stops every so often! Ok, he is supposed to stop, so it’s a good thing so that we can get out and stretch our legs. Of course the stopover is good for my ‘footsies’ but it’s definitely good for my sleep! Just the thought of being seated for more than 24 hours cautioned me to make sure I get out at every stop to exercise my legs and make sure there’s circulation in them so that I don’t get off the bus in Juba with dead legs, starved of all nutrition.

3:26 pm  Kericho is literally full of tea! See, I mostly travel by night to Kisumu so I don’t think I remember seeing Kericho..maybe last when the same uncle I’m going to visit (in Juba) worked here, which was really long ago! I think I’ve paid almost all my sleep debt…”

Kericho is going green! Well, it’s been green for long, ever since the first tea bush was planted. Talk about our future ‘green city’. And it’s tea on both sides of the road.

4:43 pm “Kisumu town: hot! Moving across the Rift Valley from Kericho the temperature was slowly rising, then had to remove my jacket..now I wish I could remove my shirt! Hehe!”

It gets really confusing as you travel across Kenya. If you’ve watched ‘Karate Kid’…(Hey! Don’t hate on the type of movies I watch! I watched it and enjoyed, because I can say I’ve been to almost all the places in the movie!) So as I was saying, if you’ve watched Karate Kid, there’s the part where Jackie Chan tells Jaden Smith (Will Smith’s kid) to take his “jacket off!” He takes his jacket off. Then he’s told, “Jacket on!” He puts it on. “Jacket off!” Takes it off. “Jacket off!” “Jacket on!” It’s on and off over and over again! For me the bus ride was similar. Nairobi in the morning – Jacket on. The sun comes out – Jacket off. We get to the Limuru Highlands – Jacket on. Down into the Rift Valley – Jacket off. The winds blow in the Rift Valley – Jacket on. We reach Kisumu – you’re getting the hang of it..fill in the blanks! J Because it’s hot – cold – hot – cold all through! Beautiful weather!

5:05 pm  “Today morning I was at my bedside, now in the evening I’m at the Lakeside! Literally, standing at the lake with the boats and all: I could really use a swim right now!”

You can’t say you’ve been to Kisumu if you have not been to the shores of Lake Victoria and touched the hyacinth-overgrowing waters or eaten the lakeside fish. The mjuaji (know-it-all) in me decided to leave the rest of the passengers of the Kampala Coach at the restaurant where the bus had parked for the Kisumu stopover so I could at least go to the lakeside; how else could I say I passed through Kisumu?! I asked the driver how long we would be at this stop and he told me it would be at least 20 minutes. So I was set! Walked down to the lake and took about 5 minutes to get there. I had to let people at home know I was at the lake! So I called a friend of mine and said proudly “I am now at the lakeside!” Looking at my watch, time was already up and I was to start making my way to the bus. I was still on the phone call. Walking along the road and looking down talking about the coming journey then when I looked up I saw the bus I was in driving off! It was not at the place I had left it parked, and now it was at a bend, going slowly as it was turning the corner! I started to run! “Sorry, I’ve got to go!” I cut the call and now I was running toward the  bus, waving frantically so the driver could see I was running to catch that bus! When I got to the bus, I realized it had stopped at the bend because they were waiting for me. “Oh, you wanted to stay in Kisumu?” the other bus officials said sarcastically. I looked for the driver I had spoken to earlier: “But he told me you’d be here for 20 minutes! And I have been out for only 17 minutes!” He didn’t speak. One of the other ones said, “Oh really, 20 minutes? If you’d have come after 20 minutes you’d have seen dust!” Really, I’d have seen the dust of the speeding bus driving away.

5:18 pm  “..imagine I almost missed the bus! I went to the lakeside cause the driver told me we were to leave in 20 minutes… I was back in 17 and I saw the bus had already left the place it had been parked… thank God it was driving in my direction!”
6:21 pm “There are many Central-province-looking people on the bus… I hear workmen in Juba are paid better than in Nairobi, so I guess they’re going for greener pastures…”

The language they’re speaking tells it all! A whole delegation of Kenyans from Central Province on the way to Juba looking for jobs. I learnt later that they are going to join a construction project. The Chinese are doing a lot of construction in Juba, and as I hear, the preferred KYMs (kanda ya mooko’s are unskilled farm hands) and even welders and other skilled laborers happen to be Kenyan most of the time.

6:24 pm  “The sunset is beautiful”
7:37 pm“…now at the (Kenya-Uganda) border… so we get out of the bus and walk to the office where we fill in forms and have our passports stamped…the journey continues…”

I’ve been here before; done this. Welcome to Uganda where we pay 200 shillings to use the loo!
I was confused for a moment when after I walked out of the Gents the lady at the door asked me for money and when I asked her how much? She replied, “200”! The Kenya shilling to Uganda shilling exchange always shocks me when I travel these sides!

7:46 pm “…I think (smses) are 5 (shillings) now…”
8:01 pm “Turns out there is Zain Uganda…that’s what I am on now; just filled in forms at the border and waiting to go into Kampala: but now the (sms’) are priced internationally!”
8:21 pm  “So I will be texting less now that I am on this side; It’s 5 (shillings) for me, guess it should be the same for you too; if not 10 (shillings)! Hehe! So I guess this is goodnight!”
8:39 pm  “This is somewhere in Busia-Uganda…but it is dark now so can’t tell where exactly; heading toward Jinja then to Kampala…”
11:58 pm Now finally in Kampala! It’s been exactly 12 hours on the road, because we’ve been stopping along the way; seems we’re here for 20 minutes then we continue north…”

On the Kampala Coach ticket it is written that they provide water and a meal. My sister Melissa pointed out the fact that when she came to Uganda some time back the bus service didn’t serve them any food; I realized why not. It’s because the food is served for people who are going past Kampala. Rice and beef stew for passengers (like myself) going up north from Kampala.
I didn’t eat this midnight ‘snack’. While in Nairobi I had stocked up on foodstuff: 1 bottle of 1.5 litres water, 2 bottles of fruit juice, 2 bottles of yoghurt, buns, brawn, biscuits, chocolate, sweets… didn’t see why I could eat rice and stew very plenty (RSVP) while I had just had my tasty beef brawn sandwich for supper!

29 October, 2010
12:06 am “I’m a 26 year old looking for a desperate, lonely, hardworking lady ready for long term relationship…what?! Just saw that on the TV here in Kampala!”
12:25 am  “Things are funny! Just seen there’s a Toyota on sale for 16 million. I was shocked at first, but remembered it’s Uganda shillings! Lol! That’s about Kshs 800,000…”

Nightmare of all nightmares! Already, the thought of being on the road for 31 hours was intimidating; woke up to a beautiful sunrise but a serious scare in front of us. There was a pile-up of traffic on the road and people started to get off the bus to see what the problem was. I followed them, leaving the girl who was sitting next to me in the bus. It’s her first time traveling on her own so any ‘extra’ adventure like getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere with the possibility of being left by the bus she would rather pass. So she preferred to stay in the bus and hear our stories of what was going on.
The pile-up was bigger than I expected. I estimated 50 trucks in the jam. I counted them later and found that they were about 100 buses, lorries and trailers that were not moving. Reason? A number of heavy laden monstrous buses and trailers were well hedged in the muddy road. A hundred-meter stretch of road was rendered impassable by the rains and the resultant deep gulleys filled with water and loose mud, dug into by trucks trying to tread the slippery road. A fight broke out as a hundred-plus bystanders started to beat up the driver of a lorry that had got stuck in the mud because of the obstinate driver’s insistence that he could drive through, even after he was warned from the night before that he would get stuck! They almost flogged him and this later degenerated into a fight that was pulled apart by a nondescript character who looked like an armed forest guard.
After surveying the gloomy situation – stuck in the middle of nowhere where the only thing we could do was hope that we were not stuck for the rest of the week.

7:33 am “If wishes were horses, the trailers and lorries stuck in the mud would evaporate and we could continue the journey! About 50 trailers, buses etc in between Atiak and Pabo (between Kampala and the border).”

I slept. I woke up. I read a few pages of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “Petals of Blood”, then slept some more. Then I watched as two Hummers flanking a Landcruiser, all belonging to the 'SPLA' Southern Sudan Army, joined in on the action of the day. Seeing the way was blocked, armed SPLA officers in combat attire down to the boots spilled out of the Hummers and were barking orders at the drivers at the drivers who were blocking their deep green mean machines. After the spectacle, the only  option left to them was to bypass all the trucks in the pile-up by driving on the shoulder oft eh road at an angle of almost 90 degrees! When one of the wheels of the Hummer tipped up I was convinced it was going to topple over. “Hii ni kama Hummer ya Livondo! Sio kama ya Agwambo!” someone behind me joked. “Itaweza!” And indeed it did. It rather effortlessly caught grip of the ground and seemingly glided past our wondering eyes.
Tippers carrying murram from the nearby town had to be brought in to solve the problem. Even as they worked, the clouds around offered no consolation. “It’s going to rain in the evening; and if it rains and we are still here, forget about leaving here today!” I told the people around me. Our expert driver must have seen things the way I was seeing them and he squeezed through every crag to get us to the bad stretch of the road, all the way from the back of the 100-truck pileup. We got across it at last!

4:11 pm “We’ve just made it past the bad stretch; it’s taken 10 hours, government tractors, patience, fights, crying children and a great driver! Oh, and the scare of grey clouds!”

Now past the bad stretch, and it started to rain! I’m told there are people who stayed there for 3 days straight.. all hail our expert Kampala coach driver!
The passport control at Nimule, on the Ugandan side was a fairly simple process. As long as you have your Kenyan passport you’re set; they just stamp it. The Sudan side is where things get a little complicated. Most of the people there speak Arabic; most of us on the bus were Kenyans, confused even at the exchange rate to the Sudanese Pound, and here is a gentleman at Customs shouting, “Bring 5 pounds!” I already had my waraga, the travel permit from the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) office in Nairobi. For the people who hadn’t yet got theirs they were able to get it there at Nimule. Since I already had mine I didn’t even understand what this extra 5 pounds was for, and besides, where was I to get the pound from?! The officers said they wouldn’t take the Kenyan shilling so I went out to look for a money changer. When I returned unsuccessful I just stood around the man who was holding my waraga as a lien for the 5 pounds. I saw him open his drawer and count Kenya shillings. He had said he wouldn’t accept my money! I went out and asked another Kenyan what the exchange rate is, went back to the man holding my waraga and slipped a Kshs 200 to him and he gave  me my documents, duly stamped. Later in the bus I found out some people were asked for 5 pounds while others were asked for 10 pounds. “And what’s the money for?” one gentleman asked. “They call it ‘overtime’,” replied the other.

It was dark. The bus had stopped. I was asleep. When I opened my eyes the girl seated next to me was telling me goodbye, and it seemed as if everyone was packing their things and getting off the bus. “Where are we?” I asked. “Tumefika Juba!” We have reached Juba. At last. I called Dad and Mum to let them know I had reached safely. I replied to Uncle TG’s sms that asked if I was awake. “Yes.” “Ok. Are there boda boda bikes yet?” “Yes”. Juba Town behind Equity Bank. Tell them I will pay 5 pounds.” And then I had my first Juba bodaboda ride. You can’t have been to Juba and not been on a boda-boda! In fact, the real Juba experience involves many scars from boda-boda accidents. Uncle’s are fresh from last week, the Kikuyu guy called Maasai showed me his, the lady at the Kikuyu bar-cum-forex-bureau showed me her scars, and the Eritrian lady at the Juba Grand Hotel also had her experience before and shivered when she saw Uncle’s wounds. Thank God I haven’t got mine yet, and I don’t hope to get any of the true marks of Juba!

31 October 31, 2010
7:09 am “…the phone networks are a BUG, cause the rates here are per Sudanese pound, which make things EXPENSIVE!”

According to Uncle, we’ve seen the whole of Juba in one day! From the “CBD” where Uncle stays, there are only 3 routes you could be going along. There’s the matatus that go to Konyokonyo market, a Gikomba wannabe. There are those that go to Customs, the main bus terminal for coming in and out of Juba either using the Malakia route or the Wizara route. Wizara is a road flanked by Government Ministries and departments. We went along the 3 routes. Hadn’t we seen it all?

I have had the privilege of touring Juba with Uncle, because he practically knows all the places and there is always a story behind everything. First thing you notice is that all the drivers are Sudanese and almost all the touts are Eritrean. Apparently there’s a law that was passed, committing all jobs to the Sudanese people to make sure there are opportunities for the locals. The next thing you notice is that Kenyans and Ugandans have their hand in almost every business. The Arabs are mostly the wholesalers. The whole of the water-transport is run by Eritreans. Can you guess who does the honey-sucker (septic tank drainage) business?
So Juba is a rainbow town..oh, I mean, city.

In Juba you can’t afford to calculate how much you’re spending in Kenya shillings. You’ll go crazy and won’t spend a cent. Where the only water you can drink is bottled water which costs 1 SDG (Kshs 30), a simple breakfast of tea and toast at the ‘Sisters’ Cafeterria costs more that 10 SDG (Kshs 300)’ lunch for both Uncle and myself cost around 20 SDG (Kshs 600). What a life! The only thing that is priced similar to Kenya is the beer, at 4 SDG (Kshs 120) And there’s variety; Kenyans brought Tusker and Pilsner, Ugandans brought Bell Lager and South African Breweries brought White Bull; and those are just a few; The bars in Juba are well stocked, that’s for sure!

If you claim to have a car in Juba and it’s not a SUV then you’re not really driving. The standard car is a four-wheel drive. Mostly, of course, they are vehicles belonging to the hundreds of NGOs based around here. The rest have GOSS number-plates, vehicles owned by the Government of Southern Sudan, the most promising employer in Juba, especially with the Referendum coming in January.

To be continued…

 

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