The Frightening Bliss of Traveling Phoneless


The Frightening Bliss of Traveling Phoneless

I recently lost my phone while traveling to Western Kenya. I was traveling on a Friday night bus, and the loss/theft happened on a matatu as I was commuting into town to catch my bus, whose office is located at the chaotic Wakulima Market in downtown Nairobi. Because I was carrying luggage, what probably happened is my phone poked out of the pocket and the slick-fingered matatu tout smoothly relieved me of it without me knowing. I only noticed when I was alighting, and upon inquiry, the fellow said, “Nilisikia kitu ikianguka.” I was occupying the door seat, and the poker face the fellow wore told me my goose was cooked. There was little I could do about it because he had probably long handed it to an accomplice as he took on or let off passengers along the route.

So, there I was, lugging my luggage as I navigated my way through the chaotic Nairobi traffic and crowds, assuaged by the cacophony of blaring horns . . . Beba! Beba! . . . the wailing siren of an ambulance caught up in that gridlocked and unyielding traffic cutting through the din, the flashing blue strobe light blinding me momentarily.

It occurred to me that right then I was naked; stripped. Just a bobbing head among the downtown Nairobi crowd on a Friday night. No one knew where I was, and no one could reach me; neither my family, nor my employer. I was a statistic in that city crowd, a number. It was frightening. But also thrilling in a sense. As if I had shed off something. If a bomb went off right then I would form part of the rubble that the rescue excavators would dig up, identifiable by maybe a scrap of my shirt, or a shoe, or a grey lock still attached to the front of my scalp. There would be no electronic signal to assist my people to reach me.

But at least the slick thief hadn’t relieved me of my wallet and ticket, meaning he hadn’t dampened the journey. And the thrill of ‘going somewhere’ that always precedes a long cross-country journey by night was still there.

Anyway, so I managed to elbow my way to the station and was just in time for my bus. And, no, it wasn’t really a bus but a van. The fellows had decided to cram us into a ‘shuttle’ van since there weren’t many travelers on the Kakamega route to fill a bus. I later learnt that it is because of stiff competition from the cheaper Machakos Country Bus Station buses that most bus companies have withdrawn their services from that route, opting to do the more lucrative Nairobi-Busia-Kampala route.

So, we cram ourselves on board and the driver slides the door shut and we get set to hit the road. I am seated next to a bulky fellow who overspills into my seat, but I am not complaining, since he is a jovial sort of chap who mutters something about the discrimination of the company packing us into this cramped ‘matatu’ while everyone else is traveling in the more luxurious coaches as he squirms around to locate his seatbelt. Unable to find the belt, which he is sitting on, he gives up and slumps back into the seat, sighing. “Doesn’t matter. We are going to dala,” he says resignedly, a warm smile spreading on his moist face.

We snake out of the city traffic, moving at the frustrating start-and-stop pace of someone who is uncertain whether to walk or run, until we get out of the city and hit the highway. The driver reaches behind him and unclasps a small TV screen from where it is nestled against the roof and turns on the onboard entertainment. It mildly amuses me that unlike on a transatlantic flight where you can choose what you want to entertain yourself with – or whether you wish to be entertained or not – on Kenyan country buses the crew always appropriate themselves the role of entertainer, and always assume that their taste is universal.

So, our man, in his wisdom, decides we will have to watch a Seventh Day Adventist choral music video that is designed to uplift people to a high moral cloud of pure wholesomeness. He has no idea that some of us last stepped in a church over a decade ago. Anyway, we oblige, since maybe it is his road aphrodisiac that will help sharpen his focus behind the wheel and get us to Western Kenya in one piece. 

In my experience, every one of those night drivers always has something. Some need the turnboy to sit beside them and keep chatting them up so that they don’t fall asleep behind the wheel and end up in a roadside ditch. Others drive with the anticipation of the ugali and chicken awaiting them at the rest stop in Nakuru or Narok (cross-country drivers always have a free meal wherever they stop over for the mid-journey rest). As for some of the Machakos drivers, a thick wad of khat is what keeps them focused on the road and its lurking demons.

And so, as the heavenly SDA music wafts all around us, my bulky traveling buddy sighs again and pulls out his phone to entertain himself with what he prefers, plugging the earbuds in his ears. To my left – as if on cue – the other passenger also reaches into her night coat and takes out her phone and does the same. Instinctively, I reach into my hip pocket where I usually carry my phone (I have always had this fear that cell phones radiate harmful rays that should never be anywhere close to your vitals). It is only when my hand comes up short that I am reminded I was relieved of the phone. Darn! It would have been heavenly to listen to rhumba on the long journey.

And so I watch enviously as my fellow travelers are engrossed on their lit screens. Like a village gossip, I can’t help spying on the bulky guy on my right, whose smile has turned sheepish. He is on Facebook, and is engrossed in a lewd video of twerking middle-aged women with big bottoms dressed in loose deras. I glance to my right. The lady is on WhatsApp, chatting with someone, and from the expression on her face, it certainly isn’t her husband. It occurs to me what liberty being on the road at night with a phone with an internet connection in your hand brings. You are in your own private world, temporarily relieved of your everyday encumbrances. A witches’ internet chatroom must be interesting to eavesdrop in on at this peak hour.

And so, since I have no phone, I cannot idle away the hours on Facebook, neither can I follow the trending news stories on Twitter, nor watch a documentary about traveling in the bush in the Congo on YouTube, nor listen to music. I also cannot check to see if the payment I was waiting for from my American publisher has come through on PayPal. It is only then that I realize how dependent I had become on the gadget, and how I took all it brought into my life for granted. 

By pinching my phone, the thief had denied me access to my emails, access to my contacts and even access to my shared history stored on that phone. He had taken away a part of me, and was now in control of lots of personal information that he could do considerable damage with if he knew how to use it. He had taken away a part of me. 

I comforted myself with the thought that he was probably an average pickpocket who had chucked the SIM card, flushed the data on the phone and taken it to the black-market to make a quick buck, like most Nairobi phone thieves do (they are smart enough to know that an active stolen phone is ‘hot’).

The thief had also taken away my office. As a creative, I usually take notes about stuff that I think up in my free time, ideas that occur to me as I move around, shooting the breeze with my buddies or traveling, which I later develop into a story or article when seated at my laptop. The phone comes in very handy for doing this, especially that story idea that occurs to you on a restless sleepless night when you are tossing about in bed listening to street mongrels howl and bark outside. This is what the thief had taken. And I’d probably never recover some of those ideas I had noted on the phone.

A long journey is also the perfect opportunity to read through an article or a manuscript stored on Google Docs and either edit or rewrite as you listen to low background music. That liberty was gone with the thief. I was now a free-floating form, a feather in the wind, cloaked in a void of blackness, being transported to wherever the road would take me.

Since I was in the middle seat, I was directly in front of the TV screen, with the SDA choir right in my face, the choral music floating in a hallo all around me. I was their prisoner. I could not close my eyes to take a nap, nor could I wish them away. And so, to spite the choir, I reached into my coat pocket and fished out a thin flask that was filled with crisp vodka and took a sip. It burnt its way down my throat and made me feel better. On the back of my ticket was written that what I am doing is strictly forbidden, but they can go to hell. They might as well have included playing SDA music to the passengers.

And so I’d doze some, then get jolted awake by a blast of choral music, peer out the window into the spinning darkness, spy on the still-lit screens of my traveling companions to the left and right, sip some vodka, grimace and burp, wipe my lips on the back of my hand and go back to sleep.

I am jolted awake again in Narok. We have taken the Narok route because there is some trouble on the Nakuru route. Meaning Narok is where we stop to take a leak and eat ugali and kuku or greasy chips and sausage – everything overpriced at night. As for the smokers, it is where they step out to take a fag and stretch their legs as they gaze out into the vast empty plain where herdsmen roam with their herds by day.

I sometimes call home to let them know where I am enroute, but since I have no phone, there is little I can do about it. 

However, strangely, by now I have started to feel a sort of relief at not having that gadget with me. It is like a cow that is accustomed to being tethered and which somehow breaks free. A strange feeling of flight takes over, the knowledge that it can break out into the meadow out of the control of the farmer. I have seen that with my own cow. It usually glances over its shoulder, kicks its hind legs high into the air before taking off, with its tail raised high, as if telling the farmer to sod off with his tether. You have to be very persuasive in order to tether it again. I am now that untethered cow.

Standing alone in the night at a petrol station in Narok my mind suddenly attains clarity. I was a slave to that gadget, which constantly demanded that I look at its lit screen and keep it charged. That this gadget constantly told everyone where I was and what I was doing. That this gadget is what would enable the police to triangulate my location and catch me if I had robbed the Central Bank of Kenya. That this gadget could tell my wife everything about me if I was cheating on her. That this gadget could tell my boss I had detoured to Vihiga if he had sent me on an assignment in Eldoret. That this gadget told Google and my bank and Safaricom all my secrets, and that, with Artificial Intelligence, anyone could now write my life story.

But now I was untethered. I had gone back to the stone age when we used to line up at a phone booth with a palmful of coins waiting to make a call. I had gone back to the stone age when we lined up at counters to pay bills. I had gone back to the stone age when we searched for files on library shelves and the meaning of words in dog-eared dictionaries. I had gone back to the stone age when our everyday transactions were not broken down into binary bits that zapped around us invisibly in cybersphere. I was free.

The rest of the journey was completed in spurts of wakefulness and sleep, the road underfoot jouncing us left and right like sacks of coffee now that the driver had decided to detour through what looked like a tea plantation. And to our great relief he had got bored of the SDA music and turned it off. My neighbours had also got tired of squinting at their tiny screens and equally switched off their phones. Now everyone could listen to the music of the road and snooze. And snore. And yawn. And fart.

Thankfully the driver, now that he had had his full dose of his travel aphrodisiac, was still true to the road and didn’t drive us into the tea bushes.

It is with this feeling of tired refreshment that I finally alighted at my stop in Mbale town as the dawn pink started to light up the periphery of this hilly place that I call home. My dala traveling companion had alighted at Kisumu, and so was probably home by now, same to half the other passengers.

As I stood there on the soil of my hometown my ears were feeling strange because they were not buzzing from having earbuds plugged into them all night. They were happy. And the tether was still off. I picked up my travel bag and hefted it onto my shoulder, took a last look at the dusty van, waved at the SDA driver, and walked off down the deserted main street to find out if a backstreet place I knew was open yet.


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