Leaving Mombasa proves to be more hassle than the arrival, when my train made its slow, stately way into the station. The departure is pure chaos – equal parts Grand Central and Little Bighorn. I’ve hardly pulled my bags from the back of a tuk-tuk when I’m hustled to the curb; someone foists my pack into the belly of the bus, someone else scribbles on a pad and presses a ticket into my hand. This is the scene at Bondeni station, a chaotic, gas-choked strip of sidewalk where passengers, pick-pockets, and low-grade hustlers are tripping over each other to the throaty serenade of diesel engines.
“Malindi Malindi Malindi,” says the guy with the ticket book. “Watamu Watamu Watamu.”
I cast one last wavering look at my bags and squeeze into a seat, the sun-warmed plastic sticking to my pant legs. The man beside me fusses with his shirt and shifts to the side, away from the light slanting through the window. On the seat in front of us, someone has written a hopeful omen: “U can’t stop a star from shinning.” The conductor paces the aisle, fixing us with his shifty eyes and fingering a hefty bank roll. There’s an air of tedium and menace that seems uniquely attuned to the perils of the African bus ride. Then with a jerk, a cough, and a great blast of exhaust, we pull from the bedlam of the station, into the confusion of afternoon traffic on the sultry streets of Mombasa.
It’s a bumpy road to Watamu, the bus jolting and the windows rattling while loud tropical tunes blare over the speakers. Husky women fan themselves and rearrange their bosoms; toddlers sway on their laps; bags of vegetables shift and topple on our feet. The coastal scenery passes by: coconut palms towering over mud-brick huts; wooden fruit stands; tin-roofed shacks piled high with cassette tapes and CDs. We pass a clothing store called Smart Ladies Enterprises, its windows filled with boxy sport jackets and practical pant suits. The sign says, “Look sharp…always” – a tone that strikes me as strangely ominous. Women in colorful print dresses and elaborate headwraps surround the bus in every town, hawking bananas and peanuts and little bottles of milk.
In Watamu, along the main drag lined with budget hotels and souvenir shops, I’m accosted every few steps. Guys offer tribal masks and wooden giraffes and oil paintings at the best prices in town. I’m not in a shopping mood, and once I’ve checked into my hotel – a long, low concrete building with cheerless rooms and barred windows – I head straight for the beach. It’s a handsome, curving arc of coast fronted by swank resorts; a few sun-browned Europeans are lying face-down in the sand, surrounded by beach boys selling shell necklaces and wooden carvings. Seaweed is being washed ashore, fringing the surf with its black skirt. The place makes for a pretty little postcard. A beach boy in a Ruff Ryders t-shirt approaches and offers his hand.
“You can call me Carlos,” he says, “Carlos Wolf.” Then he adds, “But some people call me Carlos Wolf Dog.” He asks if there’s anything I need: a dhow ride, a joint, a bottle of coconut wine. I gesture toward a few plump, bikinied bottoms with my eyebrows, and he laughs appreciatively. His eyes imply it’s the one thing Carlos Wolf Dog can’t provide, and he shoves his hands into the pockets of his blue jeans and kicks at the sand. The sun has started to sink behind the palms; a stiff sea breeze is blowing in. He shows me a couple of pieces of driftwood with names engraved into them, offering to carve my name for a fair price. I tell him I’ll think it over and head back toward the hotel. He drifts aimlessly along the water, swaying to some unheard beat, before turning his attention to a couple of olive-skinned girls reclining on beach chairs nearby.
Despite the Indian-Ocean views, Watamu has a whiff of the Mediterranean about it. For years the coastal stretch from here to Malindi has been a favorite for Italian vacationers, who apparently don’t have enough beaches of their own to keep them busy. It’s in Watamu that I have my finest cappuccino in Kenya, not to mention creamy gelato and some of the best pizza this side of the equator. In the supermarket, a pretty, busty Italian girl bemoans the fact that the Nutella shipment is a day late. Bare-chested men parade around in snug-fitting Speedos, members spryly standing at attention, as though ready to salute passersby with a cheerful, “Ciao, Kenya!”
For a few days I loaf around and make small-talk with the shopkeepers: they butter me up with flatteries before drawing my attention to some spears or wooden hippos. I wander the warren of dirt roads where the locals live, naked kids scooting through the mud while their mothers chase after them with basins full of soapy water. Old men sit in front of the shops, working the pedals of their sewing machines with bare feet. Teenage boys are threading needles and weaving rhinestone flowers onto sandals. A local beach boy, who introduces himself as Rasta, trails me through the streets, trying to make conversation at my heels. I try to shake him, but to no avail. He asks me for Ksh200 – about three US bucks. It’s more than most Kenyans make for a full day’s work, but when I hand him a fifty, he gives me an expectant look. I suggest I can take it back if he’d like – a move that, I hate to admit, makes me feel like less of a dick than you might expect.
Not all of the locals have been such ungracious hosts. One afternoon I join a group watching soccer at a nearby “theater” – a stuffy, sweaty, poured-concrete box with a projection TV and a few fans whirring slowly on the ceiling. Given the rabid devotion most Kenyans have to the English Premier League, it’s no surprise the place is standing-room-only. The crowd claps and cheers and hurls insults at the screen, hooting with disapproval when Man. United goes down a goal. Outside, there’s some bitter commiseration over a disappointing result. On my way home the grills are being fired up outside the local restaurants, skewers of goat crowding alongside chicken wings and anonymous meats. I manage to stuff myself for just under a dollar; this Kenyan life isn’t half-bad, really. In the morning, a Biblical storm is shaking the trees and pelting the roof, and I stay hunkered down beneath the covers, quietly burping up char-grilled goat, until the wind subsides and the first rays of sunlight poke between the clouds, and the hotel cats come pawing at my door.