A packed car took us from the Masai Mara back to Narok: an early alarm, packing in the dark, squeezing in with 8 other people onto a car, rutted roads bouncing the car. Kids in the boot, playing with my hair, pulling at the loose strands fascinated.
We caught a bus from town to Kisumu, squeezing on with our big rucksacks pushed between our legs, people looking at us oddly and pointing at these two mzungus through the window.
I’d love to write pages and pages on travelling: I love public transport here, it’s exhausting and intense but an experience. Flat dry land turns into green tea plantations, roadside shops made of wooden boards, hand painted signs, women sat out selling fruit, guys on boda-bodas waiting to give lifts. A preacher gets on and edges down the bus aisle, blessing people and getting 10 bob in return; hands raise up to receive him. Women get on with woven plastic bags filled from the market. I push the window open and let the breeze in.
We change onto a matatu, our bags on the roof, planks laid between the sagging seats so more people can fit on. The driver, foot to the floor, rounds a corner too quickly and there’s suddenly a bang and the entire sliding door has been torn off, the two conductors who were hanging onto the side slip off and the momentum runs them down the road. Screams from the back. We pile off and everyone inspects the damage and has something to say about it; a policeman arrives and we counts how many of us were on the bus. We get talking to a nice man called Renson; he’s a chef at one of the fancy safari lodges and is going home to see his family for the first time in two months.
Renson helps us onto the next matatu, in the back with 22 other people. A chicken squawks beneath a seat somewhere and Moz has a serious looking child on his knees. We’re having the full matatu experience today. Sight of the day has to go to a tuktuk chugging down the highway with a coffin sticking out the back – no-one else seems amused, we stifle laughter. We stop to drop off passengers and a hawker pushes open the window to sell bottled water; I reply and they comment on my Swahili. “I’m learning, but it’s difficult”, I put together a stumbles sentence. An old man in front booms back at me: “you’re learning and thats the important thing”. Kisumu has a hectic bus station, and we’re tired after a long ten hours on the road. We find a guesthouse; there’s dusk over Lake Victoria.
The next morning we find a matatu, wait in the sun for an hour until it fills up. We’re the source of interest to lots of people who come up and chat. Around us, hawkers sell nuts, soda, water, handkerchiefs, buses are piled high with luggage on the roofs, conductors drag passengers onto their departing buses. I go to the stand to buy a ticket: “800” the guy tells me, and I say we know the price is 300. “Yes but it’s gone up because of fuel prices” he replies and two others chime in: “fuel prices”. “Ok”, I say, “but we were told yesterday that the price is 300 per person”. He asks to meet at 700 and I agree, “are you giving me mzungu prices?” as I peel the grubby notes from my purse. “No!” he looks shocked, “mzungu price is 500!”
The bus rolls through fields with women working, following the roadway carrying buckets on their heads, bent over food stalls cooking. It’s International Women’s Day today and my phone is full of photos celebrating powerful women. The women here boggle my brain.
We reach Kericho, a small hill town, and check into our hotel. Margaret, the sassy receptionist, makes us laugh: when I go down to ask about the laundry price list (which is cheap) and the cost of washing underwear (which stands out on the price list as not), she laughs. It’s not etiquette in Africa to wash someone’s underwear if they’re not in your family. “You people, you always need your underwear washed”. I head upstairs to face a hand wash.
Later on we stop out to explore just after a heavy rain has fallen. The streets are wet and the sky golden, people sweeping the streets of the torrents. Boda-bodas chug past with their homemade umbrellas and rain shields protecting their passengers. People in Kericho are so friendly, welcoming us to their town – there’s Margaret, our waitress, who strokes my hair and several different guys who come up to me in the street telling me I am beautiful. I like it here!
The next day we walk to explore the tea plantations, the main reason for our visit. Kenya is the third largest tea explorer in the world, with tea bringing almost a third of the country’s export income. Our guidebook told us that it is unique in that smallholders produce the bulk, around 60%, of the country’s tea. In Kericho, tea picking is the main source of employment – and good pickers collect their own body weight in a day. At breakfast we make cups of tea with Kericho teabags – most will be exported around the world but we have some in the bustling guesthouse where we’re staying, a gospel choir waking us at 7am and what sounds like a garage next door. I’m happy to finally have a proper brew; Kenyan tea is pretty horrible, boiled pale with milk and sweetened with spoons of sugar. I pour in the cold milk and mash the teabag around, happy for strong hot cuppa.
The fields around the town are bright, bright green and beautiful. The plants have delicate leaves and are neatly planted in straight rows covering the hillsides. We’re walking through the old Brooke Bond plantation, now bought over by Unilever, and the pickers stand and wave to greet us. They are brightly coloured dots in a sea of green, stooping and picking and dropping the green leaves into the baskets on their backs.
Afterwards we go to the arboretum, a Victorian park set out on a hillside, popular with weekend picnickers but empty save for us and an Indian couple from Derby, returning to Kenya for the first time in thirty years. Many of the tees were planted by a tea estate owner in the 40s and have grown huge, towering trunks and branches overhead. Eucalyptus trees that I wrap my arms around and rustling bamboo like a cave.
We don’t do that much in Kericho, but it’s a relaxing and beautiful stay, cool in the hills after the heat of eastern Kenya. Next up: the rainforest!