Coastal Kenya

Gus Mattammal

Hello All!

I hope everyone is well, and living a distinctly malaria-free life. I am slowly losing the fight against Africa; the last two nights mosquitoes (called mozzies by British Kenyans) have somehow penetrated the perimeter defenses and I’ve woken up bitten. If I get sick any time in the next 6 weeks, it’s probably malaria. Sigh. It’s tough to beat Africa….

Executive Summary

Updates can now be found online!

Mombasa: 1000 times better a city than Nairobi. Highly recommend it.

Watamu/Malindi: Nice beach. Lots of Italians. Sort of expensive.

Mrs. Simpson’s Guest House: the highlight of Kenya for me, not at all diminished by disastrous snorkeling expedition.

Lamu: very romantic island. Nice visit. Seemed silly to be there by myself, though. It’s that sort of place.

The longer version

New feature: thanks to my good friend Joel, the Summer Travel Update series can now be found online at aufrecht.org/gus-travels.

Let me take a moment to plug his website, aufrecht.org, which has great movie reviews on it. Joel is an avid moviegoer, and his reviews are unfailingly discerning, well written, and cogent. I almost never agree with them, but let me be the first to say that this can be entirely attributed to my profoundly lower standards.

Now on to the news…

A few weeks ago I decided to ditch Nairobi and head for the coast. In retrospect, I should have done this immediately. I had so much more fun on the coast.

Mombasa

I went to Mombasa by bus. You know, there come times in your life when you have to admit you were not quite right about things. Now is such a time for me. In my previous update, I claimed that the road between Nairobi and Rongo provided for a ride which was “bone-shaking’” or some such thing. Whatever I said, I take it all back. The ride between Nairobi and Rongo is like being rocked in a crib by the gentle hands of Mom.

The ride to Mombasa is bone shaking. I was almost all the way in back of the bus (versus in the front 13 of the bus to / from Rongo), and there were times when I seriously considered fighting my way to the front to plead to be let out. The 100-mile walk seemed comparatively like a better idea. The Kenyan government is repairing the road, about 20 miles at a time, and for those bits the buses are just herded off the road into the bush, which has been cleared a little but in no way constitutes a road. The bruising side-to-side motion that slams you repeatedly against the side of the bus isn’t nearly as bad (over long periods) as the up-and-down motion that slams you repeatedly into the seat. The effect is magnified because no way is the driver going to let something as simple as lack of a proper road slow him down. After a near eternal 8 hours, we reached Mombasa.

The good news is, I liked Mombasa immediately. It feels much friendlier and safer, has 10 times the history of Nairobi, and 1000 times the character. Even the mineral water is better. In Nairobi, the “sparkling clean natural spring water” that they sell in the kiosks comes with the interesting brand name “Chemi-Chem.” It tastes like it comes not so much from a “natural spring” as a “manmade swimming pool.” The Mombasa brands are “Mombasa” and “Everest,” which are a huge improvement.

I stayed at the Ramadhan Guest House, which had a wonderful view of the harbor, unbroken only by the large loudspeaker on an antenna on the building directly between us and the water. This loudspeaker broadcasts the muezzin, or call to prayer, for Muslims in the city. It happens to be pointed directly at the room in which I was staying. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Islam, the first call to prayer is around 5am. All the calls to prayer use the same basic words, except the 5am one, which has the following extra line:

“Prayer is better than sleep”

That’s how I know that I can never be a Muslim. At 5am, there are very, very few things better than sleep. Prayer is not one of them. I am convinced that Allah is going to send Mohammad right back to earth any day now to tell the Muslims to please stop bothering Him when He is trying to sleep. Of course, in the heavily Muslim coast of Kenya I keep these thoughts pretty much to myself.

My room in the Ramadhan Guest House was small, but blissfully mozzie-free. It was the first place I stayed where I didn’t have to spend time every night killing mozzies. Unfortunately, no time was saved because I had to spend the time killing creepy-crawlies. Since there was nothing in the room but a bed and a metal folding chair, everything in the room took up residence in the bed. Happily, with each passing night the average size and average number of creepy-crawlies in the bed decreased.

As always, the bathroom was quirky. There was a toilet seat, but no toilet paper. Instead there was a small hose attached to the wall, which I think you use to rinse your backside. Thankfully I had toilet paper that I bought in Greece, but no one else did, so if you went to the bathroom within 3 hours of someone else, the whole area would be covered with water. That’s assuming the water had been running at the time. But if it hadn’t, then that also means the toilet didn’t flush.

I’ve trained myself over the course of this trip to use the bathroom as little as possible, which has helped a lot. I can’t wait to get back to America, though. I’m going to go to the bathroom all the time. Every place I go. It’s going to be wonderful.

I spent a few days exploring the city, walking around the Old Town, seeing the fort, going to museums, etc. I also mailed postcards to people. In Kenya it takes 3 stamps to get a postcard to the US, and they’re quite large ones. So I hadn’t left enough space for all the stamps. Also, almost all the postcards everywhere in Kenya are awful. So I mostly got postcards of animals, since I was still planning on going on a safari. But now I don’t have time, which is fine, but that means that the postcards that are lucky enough to successfully make it to the US will be of animals I didn’t see, and contain sentences, which are incomprehensible due to the large number of stamps covering up words. For this I licked 90 stamps.

Watamu

After some days I decided to head north up the coast, and decided I would stop at Watamu, which has a marine park, a national forest, and some of the best Arab-Swahili ruins on the East Coast of Africa. I took a matatu rather than a bus, since they are faster and cheaper and it’s only for 2 hours. They’re faster because once you have 26 people in the minivan, you can’t add any more people, because even Kenyans can’t hang on the side by their fingertips at 100 kph.

Once in Watamu, I followed a well-established tradition of my trip by immediately getting myself lost trying to find the place to stay I’d picked from the guidebook. Faced with two directions, I chose the hour-long route in midday heat through back alleyways and side streets instead of the 200 yards and around the bend route. But some good came of it, as I instinctively found the path to the beach, which is hidden among unmarked alleyways and which the guide says is quite difficult to find. So I celebrated my good fortune by spending the afternoon frolicking in the huge waves of the Indian Ocean, which was wonderful.

My preferred restaurant in Watamu was the Ujmaa restaurant. From my MBA perspective, it’s a great example of good inventory management. They don’t keep any food inventory on the premises at all. Only drinks at the bar. And, they can devote more space to seating capacity by not having the kitchen on the premises either. When you order something at the Ujmaa, your waitress will promptly walk out of the restaurant and either up or down the road. Spaghetti Bolognaise (lots of Italians in Watamu… they’ve bought up most of the north cove of Watamu, so Italian food is easy to come by) sends her up the road, while roasted chicken is down the road. The waitress soon returns, and then at some point in the future a woman you’ve never seen before comes walking down the dusty street with a tray that has a covered plate on it. This is your meal. I guess they contract the dishes out to various women in the village. There’s no doubting the freshness, though: once I ordered the chicken and after some time a woman came walking up the road to pop and tell me politely that the market was out of chickens, so she could buy a live one from a neighbor, but this would cost a little more, or I could order something else. I decided to go back to the spaghetti.

My room in Watamu was quite expensive at $8 a night, considering what I got for the $8. In addition, Watamu is only 3 degrees below the equator, and the closer you get to the equator, the larger and more bizarre become the creepy-crawlies. The first night I foolishly left my shoes on the floor, and the next day as I started to put my foot in, out popped a big black millipede almost as long as my foot. I took a picture of it after my heart started up again. Those things turn out to be quite common in the area.

I spent a couple days hiking around the forest, including a night walk with one of the guides. I saw a great sunset from a tree house in the forest. The forest is home to all kinds of rare birds and butterflies, as well as monkeys, elephants and buffalo. I saw lots of monkeys, but only the spoor of elephants and buffalo. I went exploring some elephant trails, but I suppose it’s better I never found one as they are quite aggressive and a bit fed up with people.

I also spent an afternoon seeing the ruins at Gede, which was an Arab-Swahili town mysteriously abandoned in the 17th century. The ruins are quite well preserved, and are in the middle of the forest, and hence are a little eerie. But they are very much worth seeing.

Snorkling

I decided I wanted to go snorkeling, which I had never done before, and the guide recommended a place down the road called Mrs. Simpson’s Guest House, which had people who could take you out to the coral reef just offshore at reasonable rates. So I hiked the 2K down the road to find the place, and when I got there I stumbled upon Mrs. Simpson sitting on her bed in the main room.

Mrs. Simpson is 86, was born in what is now Pakistan, moved to Kenya when she was 6, was educated in England, became one of England’s first women pilots, flew a rickety little plane from England to Kenya, was one of 4 people who tried driving across the Sahara in 1955 (unsuccessfully—2 of the 4 perished in the desert), and has sailed from Kenya to Australia and back. She doesn’t offer any of that up; you have to pry it out of her, but after a few minutes talking to her I immediately decided to move down there from Watamu.

Mrs. Simpson’s Guest House: for $20 a night you get 3 absolutely delicious home-cooked meals, a nice clean double, and a 60 second walk to a deserted stretch of Indian Ocean beach with a view of the coral reef and Marine Preserve. I can’t wait to go back someday. I strongly recommend it to anyone who’s thinking of a nice quiet beach holiday. There is a troop of vervet monkeys which live in the trees surrounding the guest house; they’re quite fun and I spent time here and there watching them.

I ended up putting off my snorkeling a couple days because I got involved hearing Barbara’s stories a couple of afternoons. Her story is a fascinating firsthand account of what it was like to be a British colonial in the twilight of the Empire. If there is sufficient interest, I will compile my notes and send the story out. It’s quite enthralling, I think.

I had previously made arrangements to fly to Lamu island on 8 / 27, so on 8 / 25 it became clear that my last chance to go snorkeling would be the next day at low tide, which would be at 717am. I wasn’t thrilled about the hour, but I really wanted to go, and made arrangements with Tomas, they guy at the Guest House who does the excursions. We agreed to meet at 645am.

Now, the guidebook says that you should avoid snorkeling in July, and especially in August, due to very rough seas and poor visibility. But I only had one shot at this, so I figured it would be all right. How difficult could it be?

Okay, faithful readers. Time for another pop quiz… when I woke up at 645am the next morning, was it:

a) the dawn of a bright sunny day.

b) the dawn of a somewhat cloudy day.

c) storming.

If you guessed (a) or (b), you should probably avoid testing altogether.

I put on my swimsuit anyway, and headed down to the meeting point just in case. Tomas had just arrived himself, and was watching the sea and humming to himself. The rain was starting to let up, and I asked if we could still go out. He said, “If you want, it’s OK, we go.”

Here’s something I’m learning about Kenyans. They are relentlessly cheerful, and hate negativity. They don’t ever want to give you bad news. So sometimes they say OK when that’s not exactly what they mean. But, I was anxious to get out there while the tide was still right. The waves looked big at the shore, but I figured way out there by the reef it wouldn’t be so bad.

We lugged the boat down to the shore and motored off to the reef. Out by the reef there are buoys to tie the boats up, so we tied up the boat and then Tomas give me the snorkel. Now, I have only handled a snorkel once in my life, when I was 11 or something and in the Boy Scouts. It quickly became unpleasant and I went and did something else.

There are some people who, when handed unfamiliar mechanisms, can instinctively make them work. I’m not one of those people. When someone hands me an unfamiliar mechanism, I instinctively take it apart.

“How do I use these,” I asked, having instantly separated the mask from the breathing tube thingy.

Tomas looked at me, and then at the now-useless snorkel. “They must be attached to use,” he informed me.

Somewhat embarrassed, I watched for the next 10 minutes as Tomas struggled to get the two pieces back together. I guess he had never seen one taken apart before, because the first time he gave it back the breathing thingy was upside down, and the second time on the wrong side. But, he handled it with the usual Kenyan stoicism, humming to himself as he tried to make it work. When it was reattached, he gave it back to me and showed me how it was supposed to go on.

So, I jumped in. The water was great. It was only lightly raining now. I put on the mask, stuck my face in the water, saw lots of brilliantly colored fish, and then immediately tried to take a deep breath through my nose.

Of course, that doesn’t work, and within seconds I was back above surface, mask off, gasping for breath, which is just when a big wave hit me in the face, causing further annoyance. I was now a few feet from the boat, and Tomas, in his cheery Kenyan way, gave me a “thumbs up” and pointed to a different place in the water. So I swam over there, put on the mask again, and tried again.

This time, I concentrated on the breathing only, and when that seemed to be under control, I paid attention to the fish. There were so many, and so many different colors. But again, not long after letting my attention to breathing lapse, I tried taking a big noseful of air, and ended up surfacing again, coughing and sputtering. By now I was quite far away from the boat, because the waves were coming in hard and were really pushing. Tomas was yelling something and pointing to a different spot, so I thought I’d give it one more try and I doggedly swam over to the general area and tried again.

Again I focused on breathing, calmed down a little, got distracted by some large fish, and tried to breathe through the wrong part. Again upon surfacing I got hit in the face by a wave, which caused me to take in even more water. So this time I just started heading back. It was really tough going because my body was really tired, probably from inability to get a sustained proper breathing pattern, and the boat was really far off. My progress got slower and slower. As I got nearer the boat, I could tell Tomas was surprised to see me heading back so soon, and in a moment of Stupid Male Pride I decided I would not wave for help, I would make it to the boat on my own. I almost didn’t. The last few yards I was so tired my progress was canceled out entirely by the waves, and it was only with one last mighty push that I made it to the boat. But by that time I had lost all swimming form, had been hit in the face by countless waves, and had swallowed so much water I thought I might just sink.

I tried to haul myself into the boat, but failed, and so Tomas, still humming catchy little Kenyan tunes, had to help pull me into the boat. Upon getting me most of the way in, he let go, presumably thinking I’d finish the job.

“Ah, you are tired,” he said.

From my position, which is to say, face down in the boat, hands splayed forward, shins on the gunwales, and gasping for breath, he seemed to be saying it as though he had solved a very perplexing mystery.

“Yes, Tomas, I’m tired,” I managed to croak.

Tomas sat back down on the gunwale and looked out to sea, still humming his little tunes, and after a few moments I found the strength to scoot into the boat and flip over onto my back. Immediately I had to focus my energy on telling myself that all that seawater I just drank tasted quite good, and I would not be sick, and that this had been a wonderful trip, and I would be just fine. And so there we were, Tomas the Stoic Musical Kenyan humming tunes to himself, and Gus the Pathetic Failed Snorkeler cradling his stomach and whimpering. Minutes passed.

Then, Tomas had an Idea.

“Maybe we should go back to shore,” he said speculatively, as if this were an Idea to be Pondered at some length.

As he lapsed back into the by now maddening humming, I sensed that this was an important opportunity for me. So I summoned up the energy to say, “Tomas, I think that’s a wonderful idea.”

This seemed to brighten him up, and he set about motoring us back to shore. The rain had almost completely stopped now, and the sun was breaking through. I didn’t realize though, how rough the ride would be going back, and despite all my efforts, I spent the last 20 yards to shore draped over the side of the boat like dead seaweed, recycling the swallowed seawater (and the last remaining shreds of my Stupid Male Pride) back into the sea, like the good eco-tourist that I am. Thank God for Tomas’ stoicism; by the look on his face you’d think every trip went exactly like this one.

So, in the aftermath I can say that SCUBA certification and snorkeling practice have now rocketed up my mental list of things to accomplish in life from down near Learning the !Kung language, and Learning How to Unicycle, up to Level 1 priority. I will not suffer this indignity a second time.

Other than this episode, the time at Mrs. Simpson’s was lovely. As an extra special bonus, the first night I went to take a shower, and just for the formality of it I turned the hot water knob, just to verify that nothing would come out, and something did. A little trickle of lukewarm water came out. LUKEWARM!!! I remember fondly the last time I had a hot shower: 8 / 6 in Jerusalem. Since then it’s been ice cold, or not at all, when the water’s not running. It was so wonderful. I found that I could get the water over most of my body by pressing my arms in tightly by my sides and spinning around and vibrating like an atom in an ionic bond. I know that atoms in ionic bonds do this from my sophomore year Chemistry teacher Mr. Steinmetz, a tall lanky 50 year old man who lived with his mother and wore lime green leisure suits and would demonstrate the motion of ions in bonds by spinning around and vibrating wildly until the one bit of hair that he had, which was front and center, would fall down and get hooked under his nose. He was badly in need of new clothes and a peer group, but he was a good teacher.

I ended up missing dinner because of my shower, and when I was done I felt so wonderfully clean, and I danced around my room like a 3 year old child until a mozzie tried to bite me, and I realized that getting bitten now would be bad both in the short term, since I night get malaria, and in the long term, because I would be forced to have conversations like:

Random Person: “Wow, you got malaria? How? Trekking in the jungles of Southeast Asia, or on an exciting safari in the bush in Africa??”

Me: “Uh, no. I got bit on the arse dancing naked and alone in my hotel room after my first warm shower in 3 weeks.”

Lamu

Anyway, it was with much regret that I left Mrs. Simpson’s and headed off to the island of Lamu. Lamu is in a small archipelago off the north coast of Kenya. Lamu town is said to be the oldest city in Kenya. It has only a couple of small towns on it, and no cars. All transport is by foot, donkey, or boat. The beaches are huge, nice, and virtually unpopulated. The atmosphere is very relaxed, and the food cheap. Most evenings before dinner I would go down to the waterfront and sit with the old men watching the last of the dhows (small wooden sailboats made on the island) come in from fishing. The sun would set behind us and turn the clouds different colors. Eventually it would get dark, the muezzin would sound, and the old men would head to the mosque and I would head to dinner.

In the evenings I headed down to the Zinj Cinema, where they show Bollywood films nightly for 25 cents. It’s a very social place; everyone comes to chat and smoke and shout when it seems the guy is about to get the girl, etc. For those of you who have never seen a Bollywood feature, I highly recommend it. You don’t have to understand the dialogue; in fact, I think it would just be distracting. Certainly there were no Indians in the theatre (unless you count this half-Indian), so no one understood any of the dialogue, but a good time was always had by all.

I’ll try and describe the most entertaining one I saw, using Western analogues wherever possible, since some of the characters did seem like analogues to recognizable actors in Western cinema. I have no idea what the name of the movie was, but I assure you it doesn’t matter.

The plot:

Jackie Chan and Antonio Banderas are brothers who unknowingly fall in love with the same woman, the Indian Babe (henceforth referred to as the IB. There’s no analogue for her, I promise. She was legitimately a babe, though). Through a series of neck-wrenching plot twists and scene changes, it’s hard to tell who will win the love of the IB, or even whom you want to win the love of the IB. What you do know is that the Bad Guy, sort of an evil Indian Arthur Fonzerelli who appears during the middle half hour should definitely NOT win the love of the IB. That half an hour was sort of a cross between Grease and West Side Story, including large-scale mind-numbingly bad dance choreography and renditions, in Hindi, of “Mony Mony” and “Since I Fell For You.”

The happy ending occurs when Jackie Chan wakes up from the coma he was in as a result of getting hit by a car trying to save Antonio Banderas from jumping off a bridge in rage and frustration at finding out it was his brother he was competing against for the IB. Jackie wins the IB, but all is well because just outside the hospital Antonio Banderas finds a second IB (though I thought she was notably less of a babe than the first), and they fall instantly in love.

After 4 days of hiking around Lamu and going to the beach and watching Bollywood, I came back to Watamu, and stayed for a few days more at Mrs. Simpson’s, where I settled for swimming and hiking and walking along the beach. Then I took a bus back here to Mombasa, and now I am staying in the New Palm Tree Hotel, which is very nice. On Friday I finally go back to the states. I’m so excited. It’s time to go on to the next stage.

I hope everyone is well and happy!

Cheers, Gus

© Gus Mattammal, All Rights Reserved