I board the train. I find my seat. I am glad I’ll be sharing a table with 3 other people instead of 5. But I did not get a window seat. I don’t know how they overlooked the option of choosing one’s seat when setting up the online booking system. A part of me wishes the person who got the window seat misses the train but I reprimand myself. I instead toy with the idea that perhaps they will board at a station halfway through the journey. This will give me enough time to sit by the window.
“Excuse me, I think I am seat number 24.” A voice cuts me from my thoughts. The occupant of the window seat has arrived. I usually find it funny when someone knows their seat number very well but pretend to be uncertain when they find someone occupying their space or blocking the way to their seat.
I move to let him pass. I console myself that I’ll get a window seat next time. Shortly after, a couple occupies the seats facing us. Perhaps they are just friends or acquaintances but I assume they are a couple unless something proves otherwise. We all get comfortable and the journey begins. Well, as comfortable as one can possibly get because when they designed the seats (I don’t know who ‘they’ are), they must have assumed they will be occupied by people with big torsos and tiny legs. If I am to seat with my feet flat on the floor, my knees will touch those of the person across. So I cross them and tuck them in the space under my seat.
The lady across comments on the lack of social distancing and immediately the window seat guy says “COVID iliisha” with a hint of sarcasm. The three of us look at him for an explanation and that seems to be the cue he was waiting for to start his long narration. I remembered another time I had travelled and a man across the aisle was talking non-stop and his voice was so loud. As if that was not annoying enough, he started saying how people are supposed to talk and get to know each other on the train instead of being snobs scrolling through their phones or pretending to read books. As he said that, I was reading a book and I must have read the same sentence 50 times after he said it. But I am not one to put the book down to make him think his words had an effect on me. I was hoping seat number 24 was not a version of that other talkative guy.
His narration starts with stories of people he knows who were affected by COVID and moves on to how the African climate has made us strong and how that must have shielded us from massive infection unlike the other parts of the world. The way he says it, I start feeling like there is nothing too hard that I cannot fight simply because I have African genes and I live in Africa.
As the train takes a turn on the rail, his narration turns to the possible origin of the virus and before I know it, we have a lecture on world politics. The couple across engages him and this keeps him talking but I keep my mouth shut. I look at the lady across and our eyes smile at each other as the two men get into a lively discussion and the conversation shifts from continent to continent and from present times back into history. Eventually, they settle on Africa and they traverse the length of it from Libya to Rwanda to DRC to South Africa with detours through other countries in between. I had downloaded several YouTube videos for the journey but I find myself listening in on their conversation and only concentrating on the videos when they took a break from talking. Eventually, I just lock my phone and turn the screen face down, a counterintuitive habit I have. I gaze through the window at elephants and giraffes and ostriches and I get fully engrossed in the talk. (So it doesn’t take a window seat to enjoy the scenery mhh?)Somewhere during the conversation, I start to feel stupid. How come they know all these things about the world and I am oblivious to most of them? But then I wonder how much of the conversation is facts and how much is simply opinions. I am usually from the group that says ‘I am not interested in politics’ but from their conversation, I start to feel that politics could be interesting. I make a mental note to read more books on politics if only to see whether the things they are saying are half true.
After a long tour around the world, the conversation lands in Kenya. Again, the main subject matter is politics. I wonder how number 24 knows of the intricacies of how the people running the government conduct their misdeeds. At some point, he mentions how the people at the top can have spies that may badmouth the officials they are working for just to provoke people to criticize them as well and then the informers report back what was said. I wonder if he is one of those people sent to collect information and I am glad I had not been sharing my opinions.
Seeing that I am following his conversation, he asks me a question and I am caught off guard. It is one of those questions that are directed towards a specific answer and somehow you should answer just the way the questioner wants for them to continue with their story. It is like asking an obese patient presenting with sudden chest pain whether their pain is a crushing pain that radiates to the back (trying to direct the symptoms to heart attack). I give my answer which is opposite to what he expects not only because that is what I truly think of the issue presented but also because I want to see how he will react to the answer. He reframes the question and concludes that I would most likely choose the answer he wants.
At this point, my back is aching and my lower limbs are screaming to be relieved from bearing weight. I stretch my legs across the aisle not able to tolerate the pain anymore. If I stretch them any further, I can reach the feet of the person sitting on the other side of the aisle and I am not even exaggerating! Suddenly there is an increase in activity. A passenger passes on their way to the washroom and I flex my knees for them to pass. The passenger is coming back. I flex my knees. The wheels of the food trolley rumble louder as it gets near. Flex knees. An attendant mops the floor. Flex knees. Food cart returns. Flex knees. I conclude that this is not the flexing I want to do and I just go back to my previous uncomfortable position. The journey doesn’t seem to end!
Eventually, the palm trees come into view, a sign I was closer to home and the train finally stops at the Mombasa terminus. I gather my luggage and bid farewell to my seatmates. It has not been a bad journey after all. I know I will be picked late but I still leave the train early. For some reason, I have a habit of leaving places quickly. The way I leave class immediately it ends and walk home fast might make you think there’s something important I am going to do. It is one of the many habits that I cannot find a reason for. I stand under the midday Mombasa sun and wait, breathing in the humid air through several layers of my mask. I hope none of my seatmates, whom I left on the train, find me waiting and wonder why I left in such a hurry.