Tag Archives: malindi

Budget blues.

Having squared myself with Islam and eaten more prawn curry than my waistline can bear, it’s time to finally leave Lamu behind. It’s an emotional scene on the terrace at Casuarina, watching the wind shake the trees and the tortoises mount each other like sex-charged stallions for the last time. Downstairs I say my goodbyes to the staff, sharing a sad parting with the Prince of Peace. He’s a sweet, smiling, self-conscious kid who, for the past month, endeared himself to all the guests with oddball flourishes like his baroque handshakes and, well, his habit of introducing himself as the “Prince of Peace.” At times he was moody, and would grow suddenly sullen; he was at his best when there was a crowd around to keep him company. On the rooftop one night, playing DJ as he scrawled through the songs on my laptop, he pumped his fist energetically and called out, “Uh! Uh! Yeah! Yeah!” He might’ve been working the crowd at a New York superclub, instead of playing to a handful of barefoot backpackers from my computer’s struggling speakers. When the rest of us left to go to the bar he grew quiet and withdrawn, and he wouldn’t cheer up until we promised to bring back a couple of beers to share with him on the terrace.

I give his shoulder a playful squeeze and note that I haven’t seen him all week. He says quietly that he hasn’t been around; he’d gone back to his up-country home for the week. His mother died after a long, painful battle with “stomach problems,” and he went home to attend the burial. In the span of the next few breaths, he tells me that his father died just four months ago – leaving him, the eldest son, in charge of the care of his three siblings. His face is tremulous, his mild eyes filling with tears.

“I want to cry, but I can’t cry,” he says. “I know I have to be strong. I have to. I have to.”

Already I’d heard about the staff’s misfortunes; one of the guests explained to me that they’re paid Ksh40 – about 65 American cents – for a half-day’s work. The Prince of Peace puts in six 12-hour shifts a week – a terrific burden, even if he didn’t now have a family to look after. Watching him fight back tears under the hostel’s awning, his bony shoulders trembling inside an oversized t-shirt, I feel a cold, hard knot in my stomach. You meet so many desperate souls around this country, people whose lives are a steady string of misfortunes, and you try to make sense of their persistence: how anyone could build a life around such heartbreaks and sorrows. A man in Nairobi once told me that the only thing he knows with certainty is that each new day is a little bit worse than the one before it. There are lots of prayers for better fortunes in a place like Kenya, but this is a place that’s long on faith and short on miracles.

Before I leave I give the Prince of Peace Ksh1,000 – about fifteen bucks: a small fortune under normal circumstances that feels sad and futile today. He thanks me and hugs me and struggles to keep himself from losing it. Upstairs on the terrace, I shed enough tears for the both of us. Then I heave my bags onto my shoulders and trudge through the rain to the jetty, where the ferry is thrumming and full and ready to take us to the mainland.

After six weeks on the coast, I’m ready to make a hasty retreat to Nairobi. It’s a wet, bumpy drive south from Lamu; curtains of rain are draped along the coast, and it’s with relief that I check into my hotel in Malindi, knowing that I won’t be around for long enough to unpack my bags. That night I have dinner with Basilio – the sports agent I’d met all those months ago in Nairobi. Over grilled fish we talk about the difficult year he’s had – a messy divorce; a long legal battle for custody of his kids – and he says with a grateful sigh that he’s finally turned a corner. Things are looking up. We talk about the upcoming elections, and he shares some of his own political designs for the future. He already has an eye toward the elections in 2012, when he hopes to represent his district in Nairobi. There’s too little time to make a serious run in December, but he’s been busily making his rounds – not just in Malindi itself, but in small villages in the bush.

“The other candidates do not go deep into the bush,” he says. “But I want to make sure they know me in all the villages. I want them to know I will help build them schools and new dispensaries.”

In a country where long-term vision always seems to be compromised for the sake of quick-fix solutions and empty promises, his plan sounds like a revelation. Partly because of the personal hardships he’s endured, I suspect, Basilio has deep reservoirs of patience. Things take time – for people, for countries. And as he talks about more ambitious plans for ten or twenty years down the line – to become a minister, to maybe make it as far as the president’s cabinet – I feel a surge of hope that’s unfamiliar after all this time in Kenya. Just this morning, in Lamu, I was desperate about the country’s state. Now I’ve managed, however briefly, to find someone and something worth believing in. It’s a strange, unexpected feeling to grab hold of. And it’s reminded me that most of us can never fully understand what a bold and hopeful thing it can be in a place like this, just to get out of bed and face the new day.

The night in Malindi ends on a high note, but it doesn’t take long for things to take a turn for the oh-shit. It’s not like I have anyone but myself to blame. I’ve lived it up for the past few days, treating Basilio to a nice dinner in Malindi – then treating myself to the same in Mombasa. At Tamarind, in an elegant Moorish building with whitewashed walls and soaring archways, I gorge on red snapper and spicy prawns harissa while the city lights twinkle over Mombasa’s old harbor. Though I’m not the type to bemoan a bit of fine dining, I probably picked the wrong time to splurge on an $80 dinner. With my latest paycheck held up by the inscrutable whims of the banking Fates, I wake up to find 52 cents in my bank account – a development that will send me scurrying for a lifeline these next few days.

In a strange way, the last week in Lamu’s prepared me for the trials ahead. During the long, hungry days of Ramadan – culminating in my day of fasting – I’d discovered just how much my body can endure. Now, with that same asceticism being thrust upon me, I again channel my inner Muslim. Having paid for my hotel in advance, I’m left with Ksh800 – about twelve US bucks – to hold me over until my check clears. For three excruciating days, I get by on samosas – Ksh5 – and greasy potato katlisses – Ksh10 – and five-shilling bags of peanuts. Each morning I check my bank balance; each morning, my stomach grumbles as I realize I’ll have to wait another day. By the time the money’s cleared I’ve shed a few pounds in the sweltering heat, and I throw all thoughts of frugality to the side as I book the first flight to Nairobi, ready for the city’s cool heights and a long-overdue dinner at Annie Oakley’s.

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Say no to bad touch, and other wisdom from Watamu.

Considering I’ve got two weeks of down-time on tap for Lamu, it seems odd that I’d feel a need to take a break in Watamu. But here I am: lulled by the surf and the ocean breezes, shuffling around in board shorts, my linen shirt unbuttoned down to my navel. The routine I’ve slouched into is a cozy one. A light breakfast of Nescafe and chapati, the morning paper, a few smiles and “Buongiornos” for the pretty waitress at the Italian café. In the afternoon I sit on the beach and shoo away the guys selling hand-painted greeting cards and little carved hippos. At night I treat myself to wood-oven pizzas at a swank hotel just down the road. The owner – a dignified, snow-haired guy in a sweater vest – circles between the tables and makes small-talk with the guests. When a party leaves there’s a chorus of “Buon viaggis!” and “Buona seras!” and “Arrivadercis!” A few old men in orange pants gather with espressos in the lounge, where Italian football plays on a flickering, staticky screen.

Though I’ve passed a pleasant few days around town, I’m starting to feel hemmed in by the beach boys and souvenir stalls and hard-selling Samburu. I’d met a few of these young morans on my first day in town. They’d been happy to hear about my time in Maralal, and my stumbling attempts at the Samburu tongue. Each morning I’d smile and say “Soba” – the Samburu greeting – and politely rebuff the necklaces and bright, beaded bracelets they sold from a red blanket on the side of the road. Around town I would spot the morans from a distance – tall, lean, and upright, handsomely decked out in hoops and chains, loping with that peculiar bouncing stride of the Samburu and Masai warriors.

One day they take me back to their house, a crumbling, coral-walled building down the town’s back alleys. There are puddles on the floor and holes in the ceiling, and young Masai and Samburu guys loafing around outside. They’d set some mattresses out on the front porch: after part of the roof caved in a few months ago, some of the guys were forced to sleep under the eaves. We sit on the lawn and play bhao – an ancient African board game – while the sun moves behind the clouds. Someone brings me a primary school notebook – a little blue pad with a cartoon rabbit on the cover. Written inside is a list of names and figures:

Emma 1500
Charlie 1000
Scott 2000

The morans inch closer as a smooth-talking Masai makes his pitch. “We do not have the money, we do not have the power,” he says, gesturing to the dilapidated house over his shoulder. “But if someone did have the power…” He arches his eyebrows and looks suggestively at the notebook in my hands. I’m in a strange moral bind. That there’s genuine need here is apparent; I can see the first fat raindrops falling through the roof, the frayed hammock swinging limply from a couple of precarious bolts in the ceiling.

But the suddenness of the pitch has left me flustered – flustered and, oddly, betrayed. I recoil with that sharp, reflexive stubbornness so common to Westerners in the developing world; if pressed, I would’ve invoked some high-minded talk about “principle.” I wanted to be looked at as a friend, or something approaching it – not just another white guy with money. The broad, gray landscape between those two extreme poles is, after all these months, still a region I’ve struggled to chart on my moral map. I bury my hands in my pockets and say something non-committal; I’m almost as disappointed in myself as they are.

I’m starting to feel the grind of all these casual friendships I’ve picked up around town. Just making it to the supermarket or the Internet café is a marathon of handshakes and well-wishes. There are inquiries about my health and the quality of my sleep; men who have never so much as seen her picture ask if my mother’s doing well. It’s sweet and endearing and more than a little bit creepy. By day four, after a baroque monologue from a local shopkeeper on the perils of a stiff mattress, I decide it’s time to take a break from my break, heading to nearby Gede for an afternoon at its ruins.

After more than five months in the Middle East, surrounded by pyramids and coliseums and mosques trapped beneath centuries of smog and dust, I’ve set the ancient-ruins bar awfully high. And on the most basic level, Gede’s crumbled palaces and low coral walls are a disappointment. But there’s something to be said for an afternoon stroll through the forest, with giant, predatory spiders spinning their webs between the trees, and curious monkeys scrambling over the remains of mosques and ramparts. No one asks about my mother, no one wants to sell me a necklace. Stumbling through the heat, my shirt sticking to my chest, it’s the first time I’ve felt blissfully content here in Watamu.

I’m all smiles as I crowd into a matatu heading for town. We pass the Gede Primary School (“School Motto: Knowledge is Light”), a series of low, brightly painted concrete buildings. Beneath the motto are written cautionary slogans: “Abstain from sex,” “Say no to bad touch,” “Don’t accept favours.” On the wall is a colorful mural of hard-working Kenyans laboring in the fields: balancing baskets on their heads, waving off favours, and abstaining from sex at every turn. Back in Watamu I say a few goodbyes and hustle my bags into the nearest matatu. Two hours later I’m checked into my hotel in Malindi, overlooking a green-domed mosque that will, I’m sure, rattle with prayer in the pre-dawn hours.

I’ve left Watamu on a high note, and that’s left me direly unprepared for the grim reality of the resort town that is Malindi. Long a favorite of Italian holiday-makers peddling its all-inclusives, the place manages to make a casual afternoon stroll feel as pleasant as a walk over hot coals. I’m accosted in front of the hotel and outside the Internet café, on the streets around Uhuru Park and on the busy tourist drag of Lamu Road. Men selling water colors (“Elephant At Dusk (with Acacias),” “Woman Carries Basket on Head,” etc.); women hawking big, bulky necklaces strung from stones the size of Easter Island heads. Desperate for earnest human contact, turned off by the constant sales pitches and Sudanese refugee rackets, I’m turning into a total dick during my brief time here. I’ve found refuge in an Italian restaurant down the street from my hotel – a recurring theme here on the coast, it seems – and I pass my nights quietly mulling over thin-crust pizza and cold Tuskers, wondering what crippling inertia is keeping me from boarding the first bus to Lamu.

One night, watching English football on a tiny TV screen at a local bar, I feel a warm, familiar hand squeezing my shoulder. It’s Basilio, the sports agent I met at a soccer match in Nairobi. He slaps his head at this improbable meeting, and we quickly fall into conversation. We spend the next hour catching up on Kenyan politics and dissecting the play of Manchester United on the stamp-sized screen. In another strange coincidence, we happen to be staying in the same hotel, and for the next few days we’ll meet over breakfast, groggily waking up to our coffee and disparaging the headlines on CNN International. Basilio proves to be Malindi’s saving grace, and apart from some fine pizza and cappuccino, he’s about the only reason I wouldn’t want to see this town wiped off the map altogether. We say our goodbyes and make promises to keep in touch, and as my bus sputters and put-puts down the bumpy road to Lamu, it’s all I can do to give Malindi a half-hearted “Arrivaderci!” and not wish all sorts of ill will upon it.