Four days ago I left Kitengela behind me, and set off alone into the big wide world. I took the matatu to Nairobi, but having caught it halfway along the road in Kitengela I didn’t realise it wasn’t from the matatu stand in town, but had come on a different route. This route ended up at some backstreet in Nairobi, and I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t particularly keen to get off the matatu here, carrying all of my luggage, so paid the matatu driver to taxi me to the rail station. Once there I waited about two hours before I could check in for my overnight train at 6pm. The train station in Nairobi looks very British, only from about a hundred years ago.
The whole train journey itself was almost like taking a trip in the past. The train looks and feels like it dates from about 1910 and the whole atmosphere was very colonial. After four weeks of living in a Kenyan family and working at a Kenyan school, all it took was getting on this train to make me feel inherently European all over again! The horrible colonial situation is begun by there being mostly white people in both first and second class; third class is just seats with no beds, and is only Kenyans. There was only one Swahili-speaking family in first class, in the compartment next to me, and the other two black people were travelling with Europeans. There is of course no rule about race on the train, it’s just the way it works out like that. Having said this, I really enjoyed the train journey, it was one of the single best things I have ever done. I got dinner, breakfast, a bed and a 14 hour train journey in luxury for about 35 pounds! The views in the morning for three hours were amazing and definitely worth waking up at 6am for! I had a compartment to myself, although there were two beds in it. The train was fairly full but not completely, and I think I was the only passenger travelling alone, so this explains my private compartment.
Having dinner in the dining car on the train, I met a German woman who it turns out was born and grew up in Jena! Of all the people and places in the world! Her husband is Omar, a Kenyan born in Malindi, who now lives in Berlin and speaks English, German, Swahili fluently, as well as his mother tongue Joni and some Italian and French. The next morning our train arrived on the island of Mombasa about 9.30am. I should say that my compartment had a bed that was made up for me (while I was at dinner), a sink, mirror, wardrobe and even a shaving point.
In Mombasa, my new acquaintance Omar took me with him and his wife on a tuktuk to my hotel, which only cost us 50 shillings (about 50 pence) each. I checked into my hotel, the New Palm Tree, in Nkrumah Road. It is a beautiful hotel with a crystal-white courtyard upstairs, open to the blue sky and the night-time stars, and all the rooms lead off from that. After setting down my stuff and resting for a while I went out walking in the city. I liked Mombasa very much, by instinct, from the first moment. The streets are so clean compared to Kitengela, there are painted lines on the road, pavement, and litter bins! And even other white people walking about! The climate is a world away from Nairobi. Half the times I have been in Nairobi, it’s been raining. In Mombasa the heat is sticky, palpable; you really know you’re in the tropics. In my room I had the fan on constantly and five minutes after you’ve taken a shower, you feel like you need another one.
I walked to the Post Office to post a couple of letters, then all the way down to the harbour by Fort Jesus. I was feeling very hot and tired by the time I got there. I had another big surprise when I bumped into two German girls I knew in a souvenir shop by the Fort. We’d stayed next door to them in the Forest Rest House in Kakamega rainforest, which was actually just last week! I chatted to them and then walked down to the absolutely beautiful harbour beside the Fort, and sat on the wall for a while. I decided to go into the Fort itself although it is 800 shillings. There were lots of people offering me ‘help’/’guidance’/’things to buy’ etc and it was very tiresome having to get rid of them all. It is one of the things I am going to be most grateful for when I get home, the fact that people leave me alone as I am walking down the street! Inside Fort Jesus, it was really enjoyable to wander about and explore the place myself, after I had got rid of all the guides, even the ones who claimed to be ‘free’. The Fort was built by the Portuguese the first time they colonised Mombasa. Later it was taken over by the Sultan, and then the Portuguese won it back and made it stronger, with higher walls and better defences. It is like any big, old castle, really, except there are lots of palm trees growing everywhere and there is a wonderful sparkling sea beyond the walls.
After I’d finished exploring the Fort, for some I reason wandered back down the small slip road to the harbour. I sat on the wall again, this time next to a Kenyan girl who started talking to me. Her name is Sally, and she is hoping to move to Germany, to study in Aachen, in a few weeks’ time. She had just quit her teaching job in Malindi, and had come to Mombasa to apply for her German visa. I unexpectedly made friends with her and her cousin, Monica, and then we walked around the Old Town together. It is very lucky they took me, because I very much wanted to see it, but would probably have got lost by myself, and there’s a slight possibility I might have been mugged. The Old Town is a more deprived area of Mombasa, with lots of very old buildings that actually remind me of Venice, in their state of charming disrepair and partial collapse. Afterwards we got a tuktuk back to my hotel and had a cold drink (or two) in the restaurant. An old schoolfriend of Sally’s arrived a bit later, and then they all left and I had dinner. I then befriended a waiter who seemed keen to talk to me and who was a nice guy, who dreams of working in a big hotel in Lamu (north of Mombasa, an island city near the Somali border). Then I went back to my room, showered, tried and failed to find Storm Over Paradise on TV, and ended up watching a channel called Peace TV, an English language Islamic channel, which was having a series of debates about Islam and the West.
The next day I had breakfast in the hotel, said goodbye and good luck to my friend Tom, the waiter, and checked out of the New Palm Tree. I caught a tuktuk to the Likoni ferry, and on the advice Sally had given me the day before, I insisted on only paying 50 shillings for the ride (the actual price rather than the Mzungu-price). I waited at the ferry dock in a horde of literally hundreds of other foot passengers (I was the only white backpacker among these hundreds of people) for what seemed like hours in the very heavy, persistent heat, and carrying my backpack on my back. I was a little paranoid on the ferry after the Rough Guide’s emphasis on you having to watch out for muggings all the time, but everything was fine. Once the ferry docked all the foot passengers waited for the cars to drive off, and then I hiked up the big cement ramp to the matatu stage, along with everyone else. I got on a matatu to Ukunda, and then after reaching Ukunda I had to get off and change matatu for Diani. When I got off in Ukunda, several matatu boys were jostling to take me, all of them telling me that the others were not the real matatus to Diani. I had less than a second in which to make a judgement call about who to trust, and successfully got on the right matatu for Diani. I thought afterwards how easy it would have been to get tricked, seeing as I knew none of the people and have no idea of the routes or of anything here, since I have only very recently arrived. However I think your instinct kicks in, and the longer you travel for the more you learn to rely on it more.
The second matatu I got on took me to Diani, and all along the beach road to the Diani Beachalets where I am staying. I checked in and moved into my banda, then went to look at the beach. The beach is a picture perfect white sand beach, fringed with palm trees, and the sea is a beautiful clear blue-green. It would be a paradise, if not for the beach boys/hustlers trying to sell you their carvings/bracelets/boat trips/fish/fruit/barbecued meals etc, all the time. They really are a pain. I am calm and friendly in declining the first three, and then start to get angry with the 4th, 5th and 6th who have arrived in the space of a few seconds of each other. The beach though is amazing. I went swimming twice yesterday, the first time the tide was low and it was very clear, the second time in the afternoon the waves were bigger and the incoming tide had churned up all the water and made it murky. I luckily brought a pair of swimming goggles with me so I can see underwater without needing to hire snorkelling gear.
This morning I woke up at 5.30am to go and see the sunrise, as it came up in the east, over the Indian Ocean. I also found that before about 6.15am, you can walk around on the beach while the tide is up, unharassed by beach boys and boating touts. I checked out of my banda and moved into a very small cottage with a bedroom and bathroom, because the banda is rather primitive. It is a hut made of mud and sticks, with two beds in and that’s it. The toilets and shower are very basic too and are outdoors. The worst thing is the outdoor communal kitchen because there are several gangs of cats and monkeys always trying to steal your food. You cannot leave anything alone for even the shortest moment. Now that I’ve moved into a little cottage I have the luxury of an indoor toilet and shower. But I no longer have a desk and chair to write at, which I did have on the veranda outside the banda.
Yesterday I was initially very excited about all the monkeys that live around the beachalets, but after photographing and watching them for about half an hour I got annoyed at them for stealing my juice, biscuits, diary – anything I put down on my desk. There was also this one dark grey monkey who was obsessed with going inside my banda, and when I chased him away, he tried to bite me. He missed, and I am a lot bigger than him, but anyway now I am not friends with the monkeys. For dinner I had already got rid of the monkeys, but then I had to contend with eight cats – eight! I love cats but in a herd of them like that I didn’t really know what to do.
This morning I had just one small ginger cat who sat with me outside my banda, and that cat is now my favourite.
Today I made friends with an Australian man called Adam, who has been here for 8 months, living in a banda. I met him just after sunrise, by the garden wall overlooking the beach. The wall is the divide between the beach – which is completely public and the realm of the beach boys – and the hotel gardens, where the beach boys are forbidden. I went with Adam later on to swim out to the reef, which is offshore. You swim in the shallows and then there is a deep part, a channel about 20ft to swim across, and then it gets shallow again and then you get to a sandbank. The reef is just inside the sandbar. It was very exciting seeing the huge lumps of coral and sponge, and swimming with the colourful fish. Also it is sad because the reef at Diani has been very damaged by fishing, and a lot of the coral is dead, and all the fishes are smaller than their counterparts in the protected reef at the marine national reserves. I saw clown fish, big yellow fish with blue stripes, lots of other tropical fish, and red starfish. On the beach I found empty coconuts and small cowrie shells. Now I have come along the beach road on the matatu, to a shopping complex that looks very Western to me, having come from Kitengela.
Unfortunately my card doesn’t work in the ATM here. I have been sitting in a charming attic internet cafe, with fans going behind me. I am a bit sunburnt from swimming and am going to have a cold drink and then go home.