“Chong chin cho, cahn ching cho….” I’m not sure that’s what the Chinese man was saying but it sounded like that. I don’t speak Mandarin, but the pretty stewardess serving our cabin could. So, with the two of them looking like an odd preacher-couple, she translated to our group of amused journalists what the train official was trying to tell us.
“He says that when you use the toilet, remember to flush,” cahn ching…. “and do not drop the used tissue in the toilet bowl, but put it in the dustbin provided …the toilet works using vacuum suction and the tissue will block drain pipe…”
That’s the first lesson I got aboard the SGR train, now called Madaraka Express. The instructions provoked curiosity, which journalists often struggle to keep under leash.
And remember, curiosity killed the cat. We left the Nairobi Terminus in Syokimau and were soon hurtling towards Mombasa on the maiden trip, a day before President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the Sh327 billion project.
As soon as the Chinese sermon— sorry, instructions— ended, I was up in a flash. The cubicle was tucked between our compartment and the next. It looked like an ordinary toilet but on closer inspection, I noticed that the hole at the bottom of the bowl was too small.
My tummy being empty, I just offloaded the liquid waste instead and watched as the golden waters collected at the bottom of the aluminum bowl. I made a mental note to drink more water later as I stretched my hand instinctively for the flush handle. Nothing!
Through the tiny toilet window, I could tell by the way the bushes were speeding past that we probably were maxed out at the 120 km per hour the passenger train was meant to do. But I never felt the speed as everything was surprisingly quiet. I looked around.
The toilet was similar to the one in my rented apartment — apart from the missing flush button and the tiny hole of course. It had a bowl, a sink with running water, a bottle of hand washing liquid, a mirror and —heck—I even saw a resident mosquito perched on the ceiling.
I looked under the sink, explored the piping, stomped my feet… even clapped my hands. I’ve seen that work in movies. But here, nothing. I was confused. The ‘chingchong’ had specifically said we flush, but where was the button? Reckoning that the thing had an automatic sensor, I opened the door. Nothing happened. My waste kept on dancing to the movement of the train.
And the train was too quiet, like riding an electric car. I love some noise, but not the ruckus produced by the Lunatic Express. That was a proper monster and the chaotic noise it generated from under the carriages made me fear it could derail at the next corner! Very scary, especially if you are passing through the wild jungles of Tsavo National Park.
History says lions around here had developed a taste for human flesh when the line was being built more than 100 years ago. I was certain the felines had descendants and who wants to be any lion’s dinner?
My last trip on the Lunatic was in 2007. I looked around again and decided the one thing I could be grateful for the Lunatic Line was simplicity. I did not have to hunt for a flush handle for five minutes. The toilet was a simple, old-school round hole on the floor of a cubicle and the waste dropped right onto the rails. No flushing, no water…just good, old gravity.
The hole was large enough to swallow thin fellows. Back then, you could see the rail tracks speeding underneath and, as much as it was interesting, it also made me feel vulnerable.
Thoughts of a python with a bad attitude hiding under the carriage and biting your business end as you cleared your system did occur. Such thoughts can make you abort your business in the toilet. Last week, there were no such fears. I was getting thoroughly frustrated with this Chinese toilet when I spotted a tiny button sticking on the side of the sink.
I stared at it suspiciously, but curiosity got the better of me. I was itching to press it but images of disconnecting carriages (maybe I have seen too many Wild West movies) or trains being flown off flooded my dome.
What if it was an emergency eject button? Finally, I pressed the button, which glowed green. There was some sprinkling of water in the toilet bowl, some sloshing and finally a horribly loud suction sound. Puff! In a second, the golden dance was over and the tiny hole on the bottom of the bowl was left gaping at me, empty but clean again.
As I turned the handle on the shiny toilet door, and glowing after discovering the flush button without outside help, I appreciated the fact that indeed, times have changed, and this SGR, is a massive step in the history for of our country, Kenya.