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The Day the Cruiser Broke Down

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It was late September when Nazir and I met. I was touring with an American group from Idaho when my cruiser lurched and stalled. We were on the tail end of a tour to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, or what we fondly call the Kifaru leg, because the last northern white rhinos in the world are the main attractions in that park. As often as we can book them, usually every month or so, we do a tour circuit starting from Nairobi to Nanyuki and then on to Samburu for the elephants and the crocodiles of Ewaso Nyiro, or as we call it, the Mamba leg. 

From there we move on to Nakuru through Nyahururu, where if we have time, we stop at Thompson Falls. There are several choice destinations in Nakuru — Menengai Crater for the view, Nakuru National Park for the black rhinos and waterbucks and flamingos at the lake, if we’re lucky. Depending on the season we opt out of the Mamba and Flamingo legs in favour of Tsavo and Amboseli for the ‘man-eating’ lions and red elephants respectively. This makes up the Simba and Ndovu legs of the circuit.

When we take that route we have to hit the Mara, which we call the Mbogo leg for the Wildebeest Migration. Kiboko leg, by design, is always our last stop, named for the hippos of Lake Naivasha. We prefer it for its closeness to Nairobi. Also, it hardly ever disappoints. There are lots of places to visit: Hell’s Gate, Olkaria Spa, Crescent Island, Lake Oloiden and the flower farms among other attractions. There’s never enough time to explore everything so the guests leave feeling nostalgic even before we get to the airport, which usually guarantees us repeat-business.

The tour company is a family affair. Mom handles the bookings, Dad drives an overland truck, my brother Mark drives a van that we mostly use for airport transfers and I, of course, drive the Land Cruiser. We have three other employees on the payroll — an office admin, an accountant and Kilonzo, our spare driver. 

***

That year, the cold season had overstayed its welcome. The short rains were yet to make an appearance so the land was parched despite the overcast skies. Though the car breakdown presented a kind of panicky excitement for my tour guests, I did not share in their thrill. One of them commented that it wouldn’t be an African safari without the car breaking down, a stereotype I resented with a white-hot fervor. It never served to reinforce these backwater country stereotypes because guests that believed them were an absolute pain to tour with.    

Dusk was falling quickly, marked by the loud cries of cicadas and the occasional caterwauling of a night critter. Luckily, the Wildlife Service already had officers ushering lingerers out of the park, and they found us minutes after I made the call. 

One of them was a tall, lean fellow in fatigues and a green beret. The other was an affable, young woman in an ill-fitting uniform and a most unflattering bucket hat. The lean fellow, hugging a rifle to his chest, looked as much a predator as any of the carnivores in the savanna. Perhaps it was his sharp, hooded eyes; the way he paced back and forth on his long legs like a cheetah; or perhaps the self-assurance with which he gave orders over the radio. He struck me as highly competent — the sort of person who calms a room just by walking into it. 

They’d arrived in a patrol cruiser similar to mine, and we quickly got to work setting up a tow pole. I hadn’t had to use it since I bought the cruiser, but he seemed to know his way around it and two of the men in the tour group were more than happy to help. It was completely dark when we emerged from the bush. I arranged to rent the Wildlife Service staff van to drive my guests to their hotel while I tried to get the cruiser fixed. We were on the first leg of the circuit and I would be damned if I didn’t have the car ready for Mamba leg the next day. 

“Most garages are closed now. Even if you find one open, it’ll be harder to find a sober mechanic at this hour. I recommend you leave the car here. I just signed into my overnight shift,” the ranger said. “We can sort it out in the morning.” 

“Should I start looking for a tow truck?”

“We have a mechanic that the service uses for its fleet. I can make some calls but…”

“It’s a bit too late now?”

“Yeah. Why don’t you give me your number? I’ll call you if there’s news.” 

I didn’t want to leave without a solid plan but my guests had finished moving their bags to the staff van and were now waiting for me. I acquiesced. He handed me his phone and I keyed in my number. 

“You can save the contact as Zuru Tours or Ceera, whichever is easier for you. I’ll answer to either.” 

“Shayla?” he asked, taking back his phone. 

“Cee-ra,” I enunciated. 

“Oh, Ceera,” he typed on his phone. “Like the Goddess Asherah.” He looked up at me. “It befits you,” he nodded with approval, and instantly disarmed me. It was the first time he allowed me a glimpse into him. A slight and momentary parting of the veil that felt like a butterfly had landed on me. I couldn’t help but smile. I was almost certain he’d spelled it wrong but I couldn’t correct him then. 

“I’m Nazir,” he said. “Nazir Khan or just Naz for short.” 

“Pleasure,” I said, walking backwards towards the idling staff van. Even in the darkness, lit only by the van’s headlights and faraway glow of a fluorescent bulb in the security office, his eyes held me captive.

***

I called Dad from the hotel that evening and complained about the mechanic who serviced the cruiser. He was on a camping tour in Amboseli and there wasn’t much he could do to help, but that didn’t stop him from brainstorming. What sound did it make when it stalled? Did it boil over? Was there a burning smell? What sound does it make when you turn the key? Was the engine light on the dashboard on? I could hear the wind howling on his end of the line; he was outside pacing and I felt bad for worrying him. 

“I was told the service mechanic would look at it in the morning. It should be something minor,” I played it down. 

“Well, call me if you need anything and let me know how it goes,” he said. 

I tried to eat dinner when we hung up, but I was holding all the tension in my stomach and could not keep anything down. Needless to say, I did not have a restful sleep either. I tossed and turned and sweated through my pyjamas. 

In the morning I woke up too early and texted Naz. 

Tow truck, no tow truck? Thinking emoji. 

I didn’t expect him to respond right then but he started typing immediately. And that went on for a while. In fact it went on for so long that I worried he was writing to tell me the engine was shot. When he finally sent the message it was to ask whether he could call me. Oh, it must be bad if it warrants a call. I sat up in bed fully awake and texted back that he could. 

“Hello?”

“Hi. Why are you awake at this hour? I told you I would take care of it.” 

“And? Did you get a hold of the mechanic?” 

“Yeah. He says the crankshaft sensor is faulty. He’ll buy a new one when shops open and put it in for you. Shouldn’t set you back too much.” 

“Is that all?”

“Yes, that’s all.” 

“But you were typing for ages! And then you asked to call so I thought…”

“I wanted to tell you over text but I also had a feeling this has kept you up all night. I thought a call might put you at ease,” he said. 

Oh. That’s not where I thought that was going to go. 

“Hello?” 

“Yes, I’m still here. Uhm…” The right thing to do would’ve been to thank him, but I wouldn’t believe that the cruiser was fixed until I ran it myself, and furthermore, my wiring wouldn’t allow me to trust that he was actually that nice. Who was he? St. Michael beamed down from heaven? Absolutely not. “What time should I come by?”

“Around nine is good. If you sleep now you can get four good hours.”

“Sure,” I said, fully intending to stay awake and arrive earlier than expected — one can never be too careful — but the gods of sleep must’ve sensed the deception in my heart and cast a spell on me. I woke up with the sun in my face and an imprint of the phone on my cheek. Evidently, I did not even stay up long enough to hang up, so he must have been the one who did. 

I think about those days often — how oblivious I was. How I’d walked backwards at the risk of tripping and falling because I couldn’t tear away from his gaze. How his reassurance had soothed me to sleep despite my best efforts to stay awake. I didn’t know then — I couldn’t have known — that we had just stirred a fault line whose seismic bite would meet us somewhere down the temporal highway. 

***