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:
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.