BounceLike your butt has the hiccups Like you were riding in an overland truck Matatus and jeeps Maggie and Claudia We've managed to find (and feel) every weathered divet in the path between Jinja and Livingstone.
Allow me to explain.
I was scheduled to fly back to Nairobi from Entebbe, Uganda, in order to catch my Dragotrip across the dark continent. But regardless of the fact that Africa is a massive place with billions of people, a former Drago passenger (Shvonne) arrived at my volunteer site, offered me invaluable advice, and managed to not only introduce me to my future trip mates but get me a spot on the truck to Kenya...for the low, low price of beer money for our leader, Jason.
And so began my many weeks of overland adventures. These good times naturally fall into three chapters for their routes and the different ensembles aboard. And so I shall recount my Drago trip with due accentuation on the highlights: the sights, the comforts, the characters, especially the crew.
Chapter One: Hitch-hiking to Nairobi
I came to Adrift camp site in Jinja for a big Drago dinner between Shvonne's old and my future trucks and met the self-proclaimed alcoholics and nut cases that made up my group. I hadn't turned on my wit factor for weeks and was blind sided by the six over 40-year olds who came at me with big smiles, beers in hand. Helen approached us at the bar afterwards and welcomed me to the group...so slow was I to realize this young, blonde woman was one of my leaders. She looked so clean. Get it, girl! And finally, we traced down the leader, Jason, the big kahuna whose decision it was for me to join. He only had a few questions for me upon arrival, this man of whom I've heard numerous party tales about already, and they were: will you buy me some beers? Do you like to party? And how often do you go skinny-dipping? Exciting start, huh? This former party rep lived up to his reputation with the first impression; I immediately admired his spunk. A self-proclaimed "professional bum". I began to take notes right then and there.
Hittin' the road the next day, the roads from Uganda to Kenya thankfully improved, ever so slowly. The landscape stretched exotically out my window and always held a scattering of babies on backs, shops selling phone chargers, matatus packed above capacity, staring men squatting by the road, and police checkpoints for seemingly no reason. The drivers dealt with each officer with nauseating charm, answering their sometimes oddball questions (do you have a fire extinguisher and tire pump on board?) like they were chatting over cocktails. I sat near the front, as quiet as ever, staring out over the dashboard between pages of my Michelangelo biography. Those first few days, I was painfully shy and acted more like a fly on the wall than a passenger, unsure how involved I could be on this trip I hitched onto. I instead retreated into Renaissance Florence and battled to pound out the bio that weighted my bag down to a saggy, formless low. Once I reached success, I loaned it to my first character, Julia, who finished the 750 pages in a staggering few days.
Julia has a not-so-salient, at first, defining feature that, once unearthed, tramples you with laughter: a dry and spot-on, effortless, sense of humor. A business manager from Bristol, England, she and I had little in common on paper besides an obvious wanderlust, but I grew to be magnetized to Julia in hopes osmosis would transfer some wit my way. She could make everyone laugh at the most inappropriate, paper-thin moment. In an attempt to give frame of reference, I'll explain one instance of sporadic humor that sustained giggles for weeks. On our first or second drive day after Jinja, we slowed behind traffic because there was a recently killed body lying in the road. Most of us kept our eyes aimed at the books in hand (worried that shady business had gone down), Helen turned to avert her attention from the scene, and Jase drove on, mumbling a prayer under his breath. Later, Julia recalled the moment in conversation and noted a good headline for the unfortunate incident might read "Man Killed in Yoga Accident." So morbid and inappropriate. Perfect timing and so original. A Julia joke.
Much of the time, Julia's material was fed by her fellow Bristolian partner'n'crime, a frizzy haired, smily nurse named Maria. I began seeing Maria's spark when we reached Nairobi and were about to welcome the new passengers. The approach of eight new people into our Golden Girl group was a bit threatening, also quite exciting. We all began cracking jokes and blending like the unit we weren't prior (meaning I cracked my shell and joined in). The prospect of a 22 year old male stud-muffin for me on the trip was enough to send her dirty mind spinning with hilarious anecdotes to make me unwind and be myself. That was just the beginning of our many male objectifying gab sessions. The bond was sealed when I captured the exact moment a giraffe pulled away from its kiss with her lips, leaving a double strand of antiseptic saliva, stretching like clotheslines from woman to world's tallest animal. It was what we youngsters know as a "Cruel Intentions" kiss. A classic.
I'm not sure why I wasn't myself at the beginning of this chapter. Patrick, the Kenyan cook on board, thought I was a shy little girl, as did Jase, whose presence always made my mind freeze. It may have been caused by my cyclical mood changes, which always occur after each individual phase of this journey. I had just left the home-grown, natural community that stirred up in Bujagali Falls as fast as a cup of instant coffee. And a tour was still something I was ambivalent towards for its cattle drive tendencies. And it also could have been my expectations that the Golden Girls and I would have little over which to bond. There's no doubt though I was somewhat "star struck" by the living legend I had heard tales of before I met his face. When you ask someone in the area (meaning Africa) if they are acquainted with him and they respond "ooooh yes, I know Jason," it makes one a bit timid to immediately whip out the goofball antics, for fear of clashing with another dominant personality.
I'll take this opportunity to explain the character of Jason, or Jase, as best I know how. He's a force of nature, sometimes a freak of nature (meant in the most endearing of tones, of course), for the things he does and continues to get away with at the youthful age of 37 years young. Bored of school and academic life, he graduated high school at 15 and began his own life that included the military, the police force, a move to the USA, Camp America, and working as an au pair. Considering the fact that he has charisma oozing out his dimples (and never, freakishly, gets hangovers) he became a party representative and moved from exotic beach locales to luxurious ski resorts, making holiday goers smile and amusing himself as a bar keep/manager/Jackass stuntman/etc. Looking for a new scene, he adorned his new scarf and wings and took to the skies, moving up at an incredible rate among the Virgin Air flight attendant hierarchy. There, at 30,000 feet above the Atlantic ocean, he shook up drinks and partied with Robbie Williams, attempted to charm the likes of Kylie Minogue, and dodged the verbal blows of our girl, Whitney Houston. And once he had traversed the heavens and gotten his fill, he moved on to become a DragoMan, to traverse the African plains via cement trucked turned passenger vehicle. He owns only the clothes in his bag and a snowboard somewhere in New Zealand. His home is everywhere and nowhere. A true nomad. To me that meant he was a man with answers. I listened to his words with bated breath; however, still knowing I could never be as displaced as he for decades on end. Jase still asks himself, "What on Earth am I doing with my life? What do I want to be when I grow up?" Just one more person I've met on the way who affirms that the straight shot into careerland is not always the way to go.
He will slide into his grave, rugged and saggy as a leather bag (thanks to his refusal to use and lack of need for sunscreen), thinking with no regrets, "what a ride!" While I don't necessarily think being a mechanic/police officer/Jackass stuntwoman who points vaguely to the nearest exit (which may be behind you!) is the path for me, Jase got me thinking about my youth, my attitude on life, and the art of travel. Under his Ngepi shorts' waistband, he's got 37 years, 77 countries, and 22 years of experience making his life exactly what he wants it to be. His only words of caution for this world was to be weary of the opposite sex, as love will be the only thing that can make you forfeit the path you choose. A bucket full of smarts, that one.
I think I've established to some extent the magnitude of Jase's legend, but that's not to say his current leading lady is a snore. No, Helen, his co-driver and trainee across Africa, is a character herself, the former movie biz powerhouse. Helen began from the ground up in a production house, from receptionist to production manager, and had encounter after envious encounter with everyone from the "star-studded" cast of Stardust to the famous feet of Beckham and Ronaldo. Do we envy? Yes, we do. But even after the loads of cash, the glamorous life, and meeting the potential scientist of her dreams, she needed to satiate the wanderlust and change her day-to-day scene. Enter DragoWoman.
And with Helen, in chapter one, came her mother, Jane, who wanted to see her youngest in action across Africa, getting under trucks, covered in oil, her formerly posh and privileged daughter. Jane, to me, was the British colonial version of Jen Winters, for all who can follow such a reference. She was the fulcrum of her community, had a voice that reeled in your ear, and a sharp humor to cause some gut-paining giggles. And she was a pistol with a drink in her hand, the pace car for nightly consumption. You never feel embarrassed drinking with this woman; if you come to a dry table holding a double, you'll find her already set up with a triple...and a beer for later.
We bumped, from Jinja to Nairobi, up and down, sometimes body dives to the side, and the occasional hidden speed bump sail forward with a bag to the head. We relaxed in Eldoret, sought dry shelter in Nakuru, stalked lion kills and bounded across the Mara, and came to Nairobi ready for paved roads, a glimpse of civilization, and a new flush of passengers to joke about. I'd like to thank the wild roads of Kenya for shaking me loose and making me open and happy for the road ahead. A wild road.
Continue reading about this African adventure with the next chapter: The Game.