All week I’ve been trying to cut corners, looking for a way to get to far-flung Kiwayu – and the luxe Kiwayu Safari Village – on the cheap. The hour-long speedboat ride would set me back Ksh15,000 each way – a round trip total of four hundred-plus US bucks – so instead I’ve prowled the waterfront and hung around the jetty, grilling local captains on cheaper options. In the end, I hatch a scheme that shows off a certain African flair for low-budget improvisation. By way of the Ksh400 ferry I’ll arrive on Paté Island, and from there, I’ll attempt to arrange a speedboat to neighboring Kiwayu. I’m trying hard to ignore the sheer lunacy of a round-trip expedition that will involve twelve hours at sea. And I’m trying equally hard to ignore the possibility that I’ll get to Faza – a scruffy town hidden among the mangroves – without a single speedboat in sight.
On the morning of my departure the ferry idles by the jetty. It’s a magnificent old dhow with a rumbling engine and a train of barefoot men loading cargo into its belly: boxes of Sportsman cigarettes and Safari “Fine Quality Kenya Tea”; bags from Fayaz Bakers & Confectioners, Mombasa; cases of biscuits with names – “Hadija Mqee, Shamu” – scrawled across the side. They’ve been piling the boxes in since early morning; now, approaching noon, the captain finally squints his eyes and steps onboard and makes a few gruff little gestures with his hands. Then the passengers pile in: women in hijabs and bui-buis festooned with sequins; young girls with long lashes batting behind black veils; men in colorful, swishing kikoys and embroidered white kufi caps that look like wedding cakes resting on their heads. I wedge myself between a few stacks of boxes and gather my knees close to my chest. A heavy blue tarp is unfurled above us, offering protection from the sun. Then there are a few last calls of encouragement from the jetty, and the boat groans and turns and churns its way out to sea.
It’s a long, slow slog to Paté. I read and scribble a few notes in my notebook and do my best to dodge the duffel bags swinging from a pole by my head. The women are laughing and braiding hair in the front of the boat; in the rear, the men bicker and stare out to sea, now and then scooting to the edge and shifting their kikoys before relieving themselves into the water. For four hours we putter past endless lines of mangroves, stopping at a few ramshackle towns to unload boxes and pick up passengers. Then Faza itself comes into view: a bunch of thatched huts leaning together in the mud, piles of trash and old foam mattresses scattered in the shade of the coconut palms. There’s some commotion on the waterfront as I hitch up my shorts and wade to shore. Wide-eyed kids creep close and reach out to touch my leg hair. A few locals have already materialized, asking if I need a place to stay.
I find a friendly man who, not coincidentally, owns one of the two lodges in town. I explain my plight, and he assures me getting to Kiwayu won’t be a problem. He looks up at the sky and suggests that if I leave now, at half-past three, I can be there and back by midnight – time enough to reach the hotel, chat with the manager, poke around scribbling notes, and ride the tide back to Faza. There’s a brief negotiation with a couple of guys who own a dhow, neither of whom – in an ominous touch – seem to speak a word of English. Unrattled, I agree on a price, then follow the man to his guesthouse, a poured-concrete building surrounded by wild growth on the fringes of town. He shows me to a dank, dusty little room and says I can have it for Ksh300 a night. He says to give a rap on his door when we get back, and even suggests his wife can leave a little bit of dinner on for me. Almost on cue, a man materializes with a bag of calamari, and he pursues me around town for the next twenty minutes, still waving his bag as I clamber aboard a dhow and push off from shore.
The wind is listless as we drift from Faza. The locals are still gathered onshore, laughing, smiling quizzically, no doubt assured of their assumption that white people will do the strangest things, often for extravagant fees. For an hour we coast through a wide channel of mangroves; then the ocean itself appears on one side, a broad expanse of sea and sky, a limitlessness that suggests the awesome brush strokes of infinity. The waves have gathered strength, rolling toward us in massive swells, and we pitch and toss atop their choppy crests. I’m beginning to feel sick, holding onto my stomach as we rock precariously from side to side. The guys lay a beam across the prow for balance; one of them scoots far out to its tip, his bare heels dipping into the water, his face sternly fixed on the horizon. Behind me his partner works the rudder, his lanky frame cocooned in a puffy red ski parka, as if he were coasting down the slopes of Chamonix instead of sailing along two degrees from the equator. Now and then there’s a short, tense exchange between them. I look from one face to the other, then back again, then ahead to the thin green strip that augurs Kiwayu on the horizon. It’s slowly begun to dawn on me that they have no fucking clue where we’re going, and that we’re all of us praying that when we reach Kiwayu – an elliptical island that measures a full twelve miles from tip to tip – the way to KSV will be well signposted, like an IHOP on I-95.
After more than two hours at sea, we’re close enough to Kiwayu to make out some figures on shore. There’s a small crescent of beach framed by palm trees, a few thatched huts set back on the sand dune. Two men are watching us curiously as we drift near, giving little indication that a luxury resort is lurking anywhere past the palms. I ask the way to KSV, and one of the men – a slight, light-skinned guy in a loose button-down shirt and white kufi cap – stares grimly up the channel. The Kiwayu Safari Village, it seems, is not – contrary to common sense – located on Kiwayu island, but on the mainland across from it, a few miles from our beachhead. With neither the wind nor the tide in our favor, it would take hours to slowly tack our way there. I blink dumbly at the beach, then at the water, then at the captain who’s trying to sort out the confusion with the man onshore.
“You can perhaps walk instead,” the man, Shahari, offers helpfully. He squints toward the mangroves fringing the coast on the mainland and says, “It is only two hours from here.”
This is the part in the pleasant African tale where the white guy loses his shit. I have a few angry words for the captain, who, I suggest, could’ve sorted out certain minor details before leaving Faza. He tries to place the blame on me instead – he’d gotten me to Kiwayu, after all, even if the Safari Village is nowhere to be found – and a heated exchange ensues. In the end, about the only thing we can agree on is that if he wants to get the full Ksh2,500 fare out of me, he’ll have to pry it from my cold, lifeless hands.
I’m standing knee-deep in the water, trying to weigh what are admittedly limited options. Eager to get back to Faza before nightfall, the captain’s already starting to hoist anchor, and I decide that the only thing that would make this improbable odyssey even more ridiculous would be to head back to Faza with him, only to try again in the morning. I pay him Ksh1,500 and send him on his way. Shahari, soft-spoken and gentle, tries to placate me with reassuring words. It’s only now, with the sun’s golden light flooding the mangroves, that the bigger picture comes into view. If you’re going to get stranded anywhere for the night, after all, there are certainly worse places to do it.
Shahari, as it turns out, runs a small campsite on the beach. He shows me a long, open-front banda with a single foam mattress facing the sea; then he points to a tree house nearby, touting its superior views. We clamber up the stairs, one of which crumbles beneath my foot. A long, bloody wound opens up on my shin, to which Shahari looks with dismay and smiles meekly and shakes his head, saying “Sorry. Sorry.” The tree house is, indeed, lovely, though not necessarily worth five times the price of the banda on the beach. I hand him Ksh300 and change into my swimsuit and spend the last few minutes of daylight splashing around in the water. Then I wrap myself in a towel and dab at my bloody leg with a few gauze pads. Another man has arrived – a wiry guy with unruly dreads – and we watch the sun dip toward the mangroves, chatting about nothing in particular. Later he invites me for dinner aboard his boat – a small pleasure ship bobbing about fifty yards offshore. When he’s gone and I’ve changed my clothes, Shahari offers to show me around the village nearby. He gestures to the boat with his head and says,
“That man, he is very crazy. Once they tied him to a tree for many hours.”
“Um,” I say.
The boat, it turns out, isn’t his: it belongs to a wealthy Frenchman who spends part of his year in Kiwayu. He’d offered Mohammed a few thousand shillings to look after it for the month – far less, Shahari observes, than he could’ve made with even a low-paying job. No one in the village understands why Mohammed accepted, though a few suspect he’s up to no good. Shahari alludes to some petty theft he was involved in a few years ago; I want to know more about the time they tied him to a tree. Was he tied up, I ask, because he’d committed a crime, or simply because he was nuts?
“Yes,” Shahari says vaguely, then turns and stomps up the sand dune. He stops to introduce me to the camp’s askari, a hobbled old man carrying a paraffin lamp who speaks exactly no words of English. I look from the askari to the madman’s boat and then back to the askari. Shahari smiles, as meek as an Easter lamb, showing no signs that bloodshed and carnage – both my own – could be just hours away.
We walk through the village, where a small commotion follows in my wake. Old men approach to press my hand, shrill kids circle and shout and dance excitedly in the sand. Shahari wants me to come back to his home, to meet his family and break the Ramadan fast. Darkness has fallen, a full moon casting the silhouettes of the palms in sharp relief. I buy a few samosas from a little boy sitting outside a mud hut; he takes them from a pink washbasin and puts them in a plastic bag and twirls the bag shut. Shahari leads me through a maze of winding lanes, small fires burning in most of the homes, until we reach his modest house, where a young, curious girl peaks out from the door and cranes her neck to receive her father’s affections.
We sit on a woven mat in the courtyard, while his wife – tall and shy, greeting me demurely from the hall – works in the shadows of the kitchen. His daughter – a precocious four-year-old – brings out plates of bhajias and stewed goat, which Shahari scoops with pieces of chapati and brings to her tiny mouth. Along with his duties at the campsite – which is owned by his uncle – Shahari teaches in the village schoolhouse. He tells me about his petitions to local officials for new supplies, about his plans to expand the school so it can provide for twice as many students. Eventually, he wants to introduce computers into the classroom. He’s taking correspondence classes from a school in Kisumu, and he plans to go there to study for six weeks during the summer. We sit cross-legged for twenty minutes, sharing our bhajias and samosas, along with our modest hopes for the future. The light from the cooking fire flickers inside the darkened house; the wind rattles through the palms. After a long silence Shahari rises and goes inside, returning with a washbasin full of lukewarm water. We rinse our hands and shake the drops off onto the mat. Then he offers to walk me back to the beach.
On the way he arranges an escort for me to go to Mike’s Camp in the morning. Mike’s is the other upmarket option in Kiwayu, and Shahari suspects that the owner, Mike Connelly – a boisterous, fourth-generation Kenyan – would be willing to take me to KSV in his speedboat. It is, at the end of this endless day, a sliver of hope I’m happy to carry to bed with me. He leaves me at the campsite, where the askari is keeping a quiet vigil by lamplight, and the Frenchman’s boat bobs offshore, the lights out and not a soul stirring.