Tag Archives: watamu

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.

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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.