Travel Stories

Leaving Kenya/Holy cow

          In the morning we leave Summerland, gather the other passengers - the Japanese couple who have been travelling together for nineteen months, the Japanese woman traveling on her own for nine months mostly in South and Central America who says a Maasai offered ten cows for her, and the No Way girls, who have softened considerably and are on a fifteen week post college graduation around the world tour.  Titus is moving at a good clip, as all the drivers seem to do, dancing around pot holes, passing on the inside of the road, missing sheep, goats, gazelles, and dogs by inches.  One of the No Way girls asks Titus if he has ever killed anything in the roadway and he says righteously, “Never.”  It's like the foretelling of Furies in a Shakespeare play.
         We cross the equator from the southern into the northern hemisphere on our way to visit Lake Bogoria, home of the famed pink flamingos who line the shores like a Christo wrapping and fly off as we approach them like wind blown fabric torn into thousands of flapping pink pieces.  We also stop at a spring where the water is so hot it is literally boiling, steam rising from the surface, as we lower a dozen eggs in a plastic bag tied to the end of a pole and ten minutes later are peeling and eating hard-boiled eggs.  
          On the way back from the lake to Nairobi the last things I remember before we hit the cow are joking with Titus that everyone else in the van is asleep, and telling him I’d like to stop to buy some of the local honey that women are selling at the side of the road, where I can see hives made of hollowed out branches about two feet long and the diameter of a big man’s upper arm, hanging in the trees with holes drilled into them that apparently invite local bees to gather within.  And then I’m asleep.
         The crash that awakens me is very loud, like the sound of a blow out, and I an instantly aware the van is pulling hard to the right off the road.  When the van stops one of the No Way girls says we hit a cow and, when I climb out of the severely dented passenger door, laying off the road on its side is an already very dead, very big, brown and white cow who has breathed its last and is leaking.
         The van is quite smashed up, the front left grill collapsed in, the left headlight shattered, the door caved in but still somehow useable.  A crowd gathers quickly.  The focus of conversation is about who is responsible, the driver of the van or the boy guarding the cows who has run away.  Did someone say tort lawyer?  I’m on it.  Clearly the pedestrian has the benefit of a rebuttable presumption to the right of way, I think.  But the owner of the cow cannot or refuses to be identified, and the young cow herder has run away, both of which raise the suspicion that they are afraid of the responsibility for the damage to the van that could be assigned to them.  On the other hand, the van hit the cow, there’s a sign at the side of the road right before the accident site reading “Slow, cattle and children crossing,” and Titus clearly saw the cow at some point before impact (while moving at a fairly good clip) as evidenced by the fresh skid marks in the roadway.  Did someone say accident reconstructionist?  And, of course, no one actually knows what the behavior of the cow was before the fatal impact except Titus, and his story is that the cow burst upon the roadway quite without warning and literally ran in front of the van as Titus tried to brake, turn, and avoid impact, and there are no witnesses to contradict his version of the events. 
         The notion that no one knows who owned a creature worth close to $1,000 US dollars seems very odd to me.  Yet everyone in the village denies any knowledge of who the owner might be.  Even when the local police arrive an hour later, alighting from a civilian car they hailed and hitched a ride in as they walked from the police station to the accident site, about ten kilometers from the police station after they got the call (having no car of their own or police vehicle) no one comes forth to claim ownership of the cow, or to identify the cow’s owner.  Village solidarity is strong; the police effort to crack the wall of silence weak.  Titus is of course quite concerned because it is he who will be responsible for repair of the vehicle.
         I propose that, since the owner of the dead cow cannot be identified, Titus take it in compensation for his loses, and when he tells me there is no way he can get the cow in the van (duh), I suggest we call a butcher in Lake Namaku, have him come out and butcher the cow on the spot, and give Titus fair value for the meat.  Titus quite likes this idea, especially the thinking outside the box it represents, and goes to the police to run the idea passed them.  But the senior policeman, who is not the most articulate fellow, says, quite augustly, as if quoting chapter and verse, that “there is no provision in our law for the removal of a dead cow.”   And thus we are forced to leave our only source of potential compensation bloating in the sun and to wonder who will claim/harvest the hundreds of dollars and pounds worth of meat when night descends besides jackals.
         Back on the road we stop for lunch at a restaurant that serves freshly cooked meat from its massive outdoor grill, one of three such competing restaurants/grills at exactly the same junction on the road.  It is quite hysterical actually to see at least a dozen men, all wearing tall white chefs’ hats, come running into the narrow African roadway waving and trying to direct cars pulling off the road into their respective establishments.  I have no idea how we pick the restaurant we do, but before long a man is standing at our table with a couple of grilled legs of goat, cutting chunks off the legs onto a wooden chopping block, then cutting the chunks into bite size pieces using his hands to pull the pieces together, and then leaving them, along with a big pile of salt, on the cutting board, whereupon we all dig in with our hands into the very tough, quite tasty and chewy, pieces of meat, the smoke created by the fat of cooking meat dripping onto the ten foot long grill drifting into our faces, as a kind of barbaric unfolding ensures, something that seems to approximate a Maasai world view of meat, as well as a symbolic consumption of the cow left in the roadway.