Three months had passed, and my Ethiopian visa was about to expire. Heading to southern Ethiopia, I crossed over the border into Kenya. It was to be the last paved road I would see for two solid days. Northern Kenya is like the frontier, brown, sandy dirt roads, and has an atmosphere that is a bit edgy.
After some serious haggling over a price, I jumped aboard a truck bound for Isiolo, Kenya, - the two-thirds mark to Nairobi. From there I planned to find a bus to Uganda.
My truck was loaded with large white plastic bags filled with beans, other bags of mysterious stuff, and about 60 other passengers crammed on top of the load. Most of the passengers were Ethiopians heading south to Kenya looking for work or better opportunities than what they have back home. I became friends with a Kenyan student by the name of Austin; he was on break visiting family and friends. With his help for translations, he explained to me that most of the passengers were illegal immigrants. Every time we passed a police checkpoint, which was often, all the Ethiopians handed over their passports stuffed with money inside.
Never once was I asked for my passport. When I asked Austin why, he said; “Because they know you would report them to higher authorities, and potentially cause them problems. The Ethiopians will say nothing, so they work them over.”
It had me wondering about all the immigrants who enter the U.S. from the south, and all of the challenges they face as they move.
Thirty minutes into our journey, the truck lost its breaks heading down a long hill. As my feet hung over the edge of the truck box, I watched the driver guide the truck through the ditch and into the side of the hill. The truck swayed sharply to the right, and I was convinced it would tip over. I dashed under the tarp bar that my arms rested upon and prepared to jump. Eventually the truck righted itself, and came to a rest, with me hanging on its side. The first to be on the ground, people started handing me small children by their arms and babies from the back of the truck as the exodus began.
“Last December a truck lost control and went over the edge just down from here, killing four people,” said Austin.
The driver probably just saved our lives, he concludes.
The truck backed up, and suddenly a hissing sound comes from one of the tires. It was punctured. So, I found a shady spot in the ditch that was filled with leaves and took a nap. Two hours later, the tire was repaired, and away we went.
Later that night, Austin told me what someone on the truck said about my actions.
“That American, when I watched him move on the truck when we crashed, I thought to myself, there's a survivor,” said Austin.
Let's hope so, I responded.
The truck moved slowly across the desert of northern Kenya, occasionally stopping for a bathroom break, but mostly to change flat tires.
I watched the sun set over the flat lifeless desert on one side, and one the other side, the yellow full moon slowly rose above the horizon dotting the nighttime sky like a giant spotlight from the heavens.
For several hours, as far as one could see, there was absolutely nothing but darkness in every direction my eyes glanced.
Around midnight, Austin tapped my shoulder and pointed to the ground. A camel train was silently heading north, tied single file, lead by a solitary shepherd. The silver moonlight and black desert created a sense that I was living in a black and white photograph watching a scene that hasn't change for probably hundreds of years.
All through the night the headlights bounced up and down as the truck found its way south.
Eventually after two long days and nights of sharing the back of the truck with the group in search of a better life, I jumped off, after our truck after it had its eighth flat tire. Waving goodbye to my ride mates, I hopped aboard another truck to finish the last leg of my journey.
The next morning I boarded a bus in Isiolo, Kenya, at 6:30 a.m. We went 10 miles and the engine stopped. I started to think that I might never make it to Nairobi. I had a transit visa, which meant I must keep moving.
I jumped off and instantly started hitching a ride and 10 minutes later a Land Rover pulled over and picked me up. I shared with the driver that it was my birthday. He responded, “it's your lucky day!” How true, I thought, to go from sitting on bags of beans in the back of a dusty truck for two days and nights, stepping off a broken-down bus, to sitting on a posh leather seat.