Tag Archives: mombasa

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 When the rest of us left to go to the bar he grew quiet and withdrawn, and he wouldn’t cheer up until we promised to bring back a couple of beers to share with him on the terrace.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.

U can’t stop a star from shinning.

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.

The Rise and Fall of President Saddam Hussein, 2007 edition.

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.

Amos Seda
Tour Consultant
*excursions *luxury & budget camping
*safaris *mt. climbing *reservations

“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.

It’s all fun and games till someone mentions “colonoscopy.”

Like the dry, lingering cough I’ve had for the past six weeks, I can’t seem to get Nairobi out of my system. A city I’d planned to avoid like a pack of missionaries has, instead, proven to be an odd sort of saving grace. After my forays into the bush and my crammed matatus into the highlands, the sanctuary of Backpackers – a hostel set into a leafy space on the outskirts of town – has come to offer much-needed respite. It’s here, sitting by the fireplace with a cold Tusker, that I can warm my toes and listen to the drunk, lecherous owner make clumsy overtures toward British co-eds. I can catch up on work and watch the family of slow-witted tortoises get themselves wedged beneath the furniture. I can run up a ridiculous tab, drink myself to the verge of coma, and convince myself that the horror stories about Nairobi – a dark menace on the other side of the fence – are just a bit overdone, really.

The plan that got me through my first couple of weeks in Nairobi, though, veers off-track after just a few days. Deciding it’s finally time to tackle my bronchial problems, I pay a visit to Nairobi General – conveniently located just five minutes down the road. There’s a well-worn path between Backpackers and the emergency room, as the hostel has gradually evolved into an outpatient clinic for the walking wounded. Neil – the Brit I befriended a month ago – has been paying twice-weekly visits to a stomach specialist, trying to unravel the mystery of his ravaged intestines. Despite a colonoscopy and a smorgasbord’s worth of antibiotics, they still can’t figure out why he’s had diarrhea for a solid (if you will) four months. Mike, an American who’d been planning an overland to Ethiopia when I met him four weeks ago, still hasn’t made it out of Nairobi. On friendly terms with a tropical disease specialist, he’s gotten no closer to Addis than a couple of cheap meals at the Blue Nile restaurant nearby.

The doctor’s prognosis, once I’ve hacked and wheezed and taken a few sputtering breaths, is disconcertingly noncommittal. It could be a virus, or not. It could clear up in a few days, or maybe a week. She scribbles out a prescription and recommends a few over-the-counters, smiling sympathetically. Outside it’s overcast and blustery: a gray winter’s day in Nairobi. I pick up some cough syrup and head back to the hostel, where a cheerless circle of sickly backpackers huddles by the fireplace. Storm clouds are gathering and grumbling their discontent. There are at least 52,000 places I’d rather be.

While the codeine-laced cough syrup doesn’t do much for my lungs, it ensures that I spend the week in a boozed-up, narcotic stupor. I stumble around the hostel and doze off in the lounge; I nod wearily at my computer, trying to string together sentences while the words bob across the screen. By the end of the week, convinced that my cough is going to linger like a washed-up pop star, I decide to ditch the medicine and rely on God’s good graces. Then I pack my bags and buy a ticket for Mombasa, hoping that a few weeks on the sultry coast will revive my body’s battered spirits.

I’ve joined up with an American named Mike, a tall, wiry kid from the West Coast who’s had a camera slung across his shoulder for at least 80% of the time since we met. In the dining room he foists himself upon me with brute chumminess, forcing me to scramble and recover the cool, ironic distance I so closely guard. Before long he’s invited himself into my cab and offered to share a second-class cabin, and I suspect it’ll take a couple of harsh words to keep him from climbing into my bunk at the end of the night. Not for the last time, I’m reminded of that sad truism of my life as a traveler: travel would be awfully swell, if there weren’t people constantly butting in, trying to share it with you.

We’ve given ourselves an hour to get to the train station, but the sky opens up as we’re getting into a cab. In the time it takes us to walk the fifty paces from our hostel to the taxi’s door, an apocalyptic storm blows in. We crawl through traffic, water dripping into the car from a few pinpoint holes in the roof. Our driver shakes his head and winces at the windshield getting pounded by rain.

“Very bad. Very bad,” he says, wiping at the windows.

Mike starts lobbying to get out and walk the remaining half-mile to the station, his eyes anxiously falling to his wristwatch , but I prefer to sit tight. It proves to be a smart move before long, as the traffic lets up and we surge through curtains of rain, pulling into the station with plenty of time to spare. A crowd is gathered on the platform: men in business suits and women with fat shopping bags, little kids tightly bundled in oversized jackets and woolen hats. There are groups of bewildered backpackers milling in circles, hiking boots dangling from their packs. The station’s restaurant has flooded. Mike struggles to restrain himself amid such photogenic mayhem, but his resistance finally caves: he plops down his pack, asks me to keep an eye on it, and disappears into the soggy crowd, pointing and clicking away.

By the time he returns the train’s slowly wheezed into the station. People are shouting and scrambling, tugging on suitcases and frantically trying to match the numbers on their tickets with the numbers on the carriages. The bedlam belies the fact that, once we’ve boarded, the train will move not an inch for the better part of an hour. The conductor paces the cars, waving a fluorescent lantern and inspecting our boarding slips. He apologizes that only half the train has power, the wilting smile on his face speaking volumes about just which half we’ll be spending the night in. The others in my cabin – a bearded backpacker from Canada, Larry; a tall, handsome Arab named Faisal; and the photographer, Mike – sigh and unpack and slouch onto the fold-aways. Larry makes himself a peanut butter sandwich and says something about poverty and sustainable something or other. Then we sit quietly while the train rocks and barrels through the night, lampposts flaring outside and dim, distant cities flickering in the darkness.

It’s a surprisingly comfy ride, though the sudden stops and starts throughout the night wake us in a panic. In the morning the flat shrubbed plains of Tsavo National Park sprawl on either side of the track. A few gazelles lope alongside us; Faisal spots a pack of elephants kicking up a brown cloud in the distance. We stop in nameless towns where women disembark and stoop and strap infants to their backs. Barefoot boys chase after us; up and down the length of the train, small offerings fly out the windows: cookies, muffins, half-eaten sandwiches. At one stop Mike tosses a few pencils and a toothbrush to the kids milling below our window. He has a couple of old notebooks that he holds out to them, but then he wavers, reconsiders, and tucks them back into his knapsack.

“I’d rather give them to older kids,” he says. “You know, so they can use them in school.”

It’s such a sweet and futile gesture that it swells me with sadness. I picture a student hunched over his desk, scribbling with a spent stub of pencil in the margins of one of Mike’s books. What happens when he gets to the final line of the final page? What dim faith might flicker in his heart? It would take thousands of trips between Nairobi and Mombasa for Mike to make a difference, though he’s no different than the rest of us, inching forward, nudging the world’s hopes along with our good intentions. And the boys chasing these trains – the torn t-shirts and baggy pants, the eyes filled with dead, pale light – how far will those gray, blistered feet carry them? And what will be there on the day when they finally stop?