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Matatu's rule OK. Or something like that

Life in Nairobi just goes on and on, with predictable monotony. Transport in much of the world, especially the developing world, is always, erm, fun? Not necessarily for the first timer and novice traveler, but you adapt to the local styles and customs pretty rapidly. Nairobi is no different.

Traffic in Nairobi is the stuff of legend. Basically, if you don't want to get stuck in traffic jams, you must travel between about 3:13 and 4:07am on the last Monday of every month or move somewhere more remote. Like Western Australia. Attempting to move at any other time is laughable, and even thinking about possibly considering travel between about 06:30 – 10:00 or 16:30 and 20:00 means you are pretty much doomed. It's quicker to crawl. And probably safer. Experience has taught me to plan ahead so that if i have an appointment, at, say Thursday at 9am, I know that I need to be in a taxi by roughly Tuesday, to ensure that I stand a fighting chance of making it on time.

Traffic lights are ignore so routinely that they are basically used solely as for urban decoration, yet traffic police are always out in force, especially directing traffic at traffic lights and roundabouts: the two places where they shouldn't have to.

Taxis are everywhere, but like in Zambia seem to charge extortionate fares compared to the average local wages. Even though I know how much i should be paying (the local fare), and refuse to pay extra, I am still paying quite allot and it rapidly adds up. Taxi drivers also seem to possess no memory: On one occasion, I went to ask a driver how much to home from the hospital and he said 900. That would be a daft enough price in itself (400 is my normal fee, or 500 if it is at rush hour), but it was even more ludicrous because the same driver had taken me home for 400 for the previous 2days, and still thought he could bullsh1t his way to more than doubling the fare. The number of justifications for silly fares I have heard are beyond counting. And this is by no means uncommon.

But it is Matatu's - basically Nissan minibuses with people hanging out of the open door shouting – which are the bedrock of the local transport system and are amongst the most colourful and decorated that I have come across anywhere in the world: personalised, I suppose, is the nice way of describing them. And they are basically death traps: In the last week have been in 3matatu crashes (and 2 taxi crashes) – none desperately serious once the shouting, fighting, knife waving and recriminations had passed – and seen several more. Personally, as that averages out at about once a week in Kenya, I figure i'm actually ahead of the game right now.

Matatus are driven in a style more associated with blind people in dodgems, and at speeds ranging between 'holy-shit that is rapid' and 'Warp 7', with absolutely no regard for anything even vaguely resembling traffic rules and rules of the road. Anything goes – including driving the wrong way up one way streets and at full pelt along footpaths – and by law, it seems, every Matatu has to have at least 15dents, a door/boot which doesn't shut, and a few bits which are broken: lights, brakes, steering. That sort of thing.

But this is actually fairly standard across much of Africa and elsewhere. In fact, Nairobi's matatu's are positively luxurious compared to many others: they stop collecting passengers when the seats are full, don't have extra fold down seats (though admittedly there are normally 2 or 3 guys who stand hanging out of the open doorway) and even have TV screens. I have certain routines worked out and certain small rules that I follow when traveling, and the very fact that the TV screens are actually almost universally in decent condition – and work, showing music videos at high volume – remains both a marvel to me and has led to one of my patented rules of travel (insert drum roll here):

Never board a matatu that you can hear (or feel, for those who's sub-woofers have yet to explode) before you can see it.

Sounds simple, eh?

And to be fair it, is both simple and effective. It is possibly a fairly sensible sounding rule at the best of times, and I know of many people who can't stand such matatus simply because they are just so damned loud. But personally, it is a rule which i stumbled on with alarming rapidity after an incident in the early and sicker days of my Nairobi Hospital saga when I made the intriguing – if not altogether welcome – discovery that at certain levels, the pitch/tone of the bass and total noise projected could cause me fairly instant discomfort and require very rapid unplanned, erm, comfort breaks...

Or, to put it another way, in my sicker moments matatus with bass at the right resonate frequency caused me to sh1t myself.

Posted by Gelli 03:07 Archived in Kenya Tagged transportation

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Excellent post. Looking forward to Africa next year!

by Sam I Am

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