“Chong chin cho, cahn ching cho…,” I’m not sure that is what the Chinaman was saying, but the sounds coming from his Asian kisser rolled out exactly like that. I also cannot speak a word in Mandarin, but luckily, the pretty stewardess serving our cabin could. So, looking like an odd preacher-couple, she translated to the group of amused journalists the strange sentences coming from the train officer. “He says that when you use the toilet, remember to flush,” …. “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…”
Yep, the first lesson I was given aboard the SGR train was sh#@ty, literally. But the speech awoke a beast that journalists struggle to keep under leash. It is called curiosity and if it could kill a cat, what about a poor human with just a single life?
It is, however, a powerful beast. So once the Chinaman was done with preaching, sorry, issuing instructions, I was up like flash. I found the cubicle tucked between our compartment and the next. It looked like an ordinary toilet but on closer inspection, you notice the hole at the bottom of the bowl is extremely small. I was not sure how a baby’s ‘doughnut’, leave alone a well fed African man’s could get past that.
Still, it just sat there, the uric liquid just dancing to the movement of the train.
My tummy was empty, as it most times is, so I did not have anything solid to do a test run with. So I offloaded the liquid waste instead and watched as the golden waters collected at the bottom of the bowl. I made a mental note that I needed to drink more water as I zipped my pants and stretched my hand instinctively where the flush handle should be. Nothing!
I looked around and noticed it looked very much like the toilet in my rented apartment. There is the bowl, a sink with running water, a bottle of hand washing liquid, a mirror, heck, I even saw a resident mosquito perched on the ceiling. Very much like home, apart from the flush and the tiny hole of course.
I looked under the sink, pulled 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 with what? I opened the door reckoning that perhaps, the thing is automated to sense you exiting then it can run the wastes down the drain. Still, it just sat there, the uric liquid just dancing to the movement of the train.
We had left the Nairobi Terminus in Syokimau and were hurtling towards Mombasa on the maiden trip, a day before President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the Sh327b project. Through the tiny toilet window, I could tell by the way the environment outside was speeding past that we probably were maxed out at the 120KPH the passenger train is meant to do. But you don’t feel the speed. And it was surprisingly quiet too.
I know the lions around there had developed a taste for human flesh when the line was being built
In fact, the quietness was close to boring, like driving an electric car. I love some noise, not the ruckus produced by the older train, Lunatic Express, for you who hate history. That was a proper mad monster and the chaos that emanated from under the carriages made you think it was derailing in the next corner. Very scary, I tell you, especially if the cacophony hit at 1am while you are passing through the jungles of Tsavo. I love history, so I know the lions around there had developed a taste for human flesh when the old line was being built more than one hundred years ago. I was certain the felines had descendants and I was sure I did not want to be any lion’s dinner in case the mobile death trap decided to go off-road.
My last trip on the Lunatic was in 2007. I looked around again and decided the one thing I could be grateful for it was simplicity. I did not have to hunt for a flush handle for five minutes. In that, the toilet was a simple old-school round hole that dropped the ejected staff right onto the rails. No flushing, no water, no tissue…just good, old gravity. The hole was large enough to swallow a sparsely fed fellow like myself, yet some people missed. Very poor aim, some fellows have, but that’s beside the point.
You could see the rail tracks speeding underneath and as much as it was interesting, it also made you feel vulnerable. Thoughts of a snake with a bad attitude speeding underneath the train and biting your business end as you cleared the system did occur and I must tell you, such thoughts are very good at making the sewage disappear right back into the body.
Anyways, 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, curiosity now bursting through the seams. I was itching to press. But what if it disconnected the carriages? Or activated an electromagnetic field that sent the train flying into the skies? And what if it was an emergency eject button that throws you off inside the toilet cubicle like in a jet plane? After thoroughly indutating my dome with these and similar thoughts, I made another mental note that perhaps, it is time reduced my consumption of science fiction movies. So 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. In a second, the golden dance was gone and the tiny hole on the bottom of the bowl was left gaping at me, empty. As I turned the modern handle to the shiny door of the toilet onto the corridor, and glowing after having accomplished the magnanimous feat of discovering the flush button without outside help, I appreciated the fact that indeed, times have changed, and this SGR, is a massive step from history for Kenya.
The article was first published on People Daily