To arrive in Mombasa is to walk into a wall of heat, a sultry wind that smells less like the wafting coconut scent of the guidebooks than a roaring furnace fed by body odor and exhaust fumes. Loud, tropical music blares on the street corners and colorful little tuk-tuks putter down the avenues. Young guys are pushing carts piled high with bananas and mangos and pineapples and coconuts, which they’re happy to part with for just a couple of cents. I spend a few mornings sitting on a bench and eating bowl after bowl of fresh fruit. Then I walk down toward the massive ramparts of Fort Jesus, where a sea breeze is shaking the palms and spiders the size of grapefruits are weaving their webs between the trees.
It’s a world apart from Nairobi, and the prospect of spending the next few weeks on the coast is quickly growing on me. I saunter around with my shirt unbuttoned and dab at my forehead with a handkerchief and exchange looks with the locals that say, “Sheesh! Talk about hot!” The days are languid: men are reclined under leafy trees in the park, women hitch up their dresses and sit in the shade of a storefront, half-heartedly hawking fruit. Every morning clouds blow in from the sea and a storm erupts over the city. We run for cover and shake the water from our hair; rain pounds the street and rushes in foamy currents down the gutter. Everyone is laughing and looking up at the sky with comic distress. A few women hustle by with plastic bags wrapped around their heads, intrepidly trudging through sheets of rain. Then suddenly the rain lets up, and the clouds blow back to reveal a sky so achingly blue you want to kick off your shoes and go dancing in the streets.
One morning I meet a young guy named Amos, a bald, beaming twenty-something in rumpled blue jeans and a button-down shirt. He smiles and shakes my hand and falls into stride beside me, reflecting the conventional Kenyan wisdom that if you walk with someone long enough, you must be having a conversation by default. He drifts along, making amicable small-talk about Mombasa and weather and weather in Mombasa. When he asks, “How is New York?” I tell him about August in the city: the cloying heat rising from the black-top, the heavy, humid air. He shakes his head and says, “It is not like Mombasa,” but when I fix him with a stare and say, “Worse,” he seems quietly impressed. We stop for fruit salad and watch the women swishing by in their loose, colorful dresses. Nearby a young guy is sitting Indian-style on the sidewalk, hacking at a pile of coconuts with a machete.
On Moi Avenue we bump into a few girls I met in Nairobi. They’re staying at a seedy backpackers’ place across the street from a fortress-like mosque, and they make weary faces describing the call to prayer that blares toward their window before sunrise. We make plans to explore the Old Town, and they run upstairs to freshen up. Amos, who’s been quietly standing off to the side, inches forward as they disappear into their hotel. He smiles and laughs and says it’s been great fun meeting me. Then – cautiously, nervously – he presses a business card into my hand.
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“If you would like to arrange a special tour, or safari,” he says. He steps back toward the curb and looks up squinting at nothing in particular, then he hands me two more cards. “To give to your friends.” He says goodbye as the girls come tripping down the stairs, in flip-flops and skimpy tank-tops and blue jeans rolled all the way up their smooth white calves. We get plenty of attention from cab drivers and tour guides and men selling anything they can get their hands on. We’re offered belts and coconuts and ballpoint pens. Lighters and peanuts. Thin plastic sheaths for credit cards. Piles of blue jeans.
In the Old Town, with its narrow, filthy streets and elaborate carved door frames, men idle in front of their shops and ask if we might want a mask or a postcard. One of the shopkeepers, short and earnest and looking slightly desperate, pleads, “My friend, why don’t you let them shop?” So I raise my hands magnanimously and say, “Womenfolk, you have my permission to browse.” This does not get the yuks I was hoping for from the girls. They go in a few shops and finger colorful, patterned wraps and beaded necklaces. Outside shirtless men are doing inscrutable manual labor: stacking massive stones, shoveling dirt, heaving dusty sacks over their shoulders. Kids run barefoot through the mud and through murky puddles. Laundry flaps from the clotheslines and balconies.
We walk through the market, with its high, vaulted ceiling and cluttered floors. Men weigh out blackened potatoes and bruised tomatoes and piles of brightly colored spices. A woman sits beside a forlorn pile of onions, sighing heavily. Men are coming up to us with wide shark’s smiles, giving us looks that say, “My friend, have I got a spice to sell you.” They hand us strange roots and plump packets of powder, urging us to sniff and prod and weigh them appreciatively in the palms of our hands. One guy is being awfully persistent with the vanilla, waving the raw, aromatic pods beneath my nose. I jokingly ask, “What am I going to do with a pile of raw vanilla?” and he proceeds to tell me exactly what I can do with a pile of raw vanilla. He shows me how much I need to make a cup of tea, or how I can extract the flavor for when I’m making vanilla ice cream. Then he plops the little brown bundle on a scale and flashes a real shit-eater of a grin, as if to hammer home the point that the vanilla I won’t be buying is a full half kilo of vanilla I won’t be buying. There’s a 2007 wall calendar above his head: The Rise and Fall of President Saddam Hussein. A few birds have nested high up in the rafters, their wings rustling and flapping, feathers drifting in lazy arcs toward the ground.
Outside guys are selling thick-soled shoes and dress pants in drab, bureaucratic shades of blue and gray. Blue jeans are piled high: Sheen, Excellent, the anonymous brands of the developing world. We buy some bananas and make plans for dinner. The girls want to check out a restaurant in the suburbs, a kitschy, themed place attached to Kenya’s largest alligator farm. On the way back to my hotel I’m stopped by a young guy who does custom engravings. He asks if I wouldn’t like a wooden sign or rubber stamp with my name on it. His name is Mongo – a sweet, smiling kid with a soft handshake and gaps in his teeth. We spend a few minutes in the shade of a citrus tree, shaking our heads at the heat. Business is slow; he shows me a few of his handmade signs, spread out on a board he’s set atop a tree stump. Just a few feet further down the sidewalk is another kid selling signs and rubber stamps; across the street, two more guys are offering the same. I offer my apologies and head back to my hotel for a quick, cold shower. An hour later, driving past in a taxi, I see Mongo standing in the shade: his hands in his pockets, a look of boredom on his face, looking up and down the street for whatever business might come his way.