Last week I spent my remaining time on Diani swimming in the sea, reading (Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace – incredible book!) and eating. In my delight at having a kitchen I cooked three large, warm meals per day, and put on lots of weight, reclaiming all the pounds I had lost during the previous illness and starvation! I was sorry to leave the white beach with its green sea and whispering palm trees, and at night, the view out over the Indian Ocean of all the stars and the rising full moon reflecting brightly above the dark, lapping water. But all things come to an end, and I knew that the next stage waiting for me would be full of its own charm as well.
I met up with Sophie before she left Diani to fly home; we went to the Eis Cafe again. She once again impressed me with her bartering skills at the Maasai souvenir stand as well. Sophie left the Colobus Trust on Friday (where she’d been doing conservation volunteering) and I left Beachalets on the Sunday. And now we are both gone from Diani and the pristine white sands and coconuts of the south Kenya coast.
I checked out of my cottage at 9.30am on the Sunday morning, walked down the Beachalets drive and crossed the road, ditched my backpack on the opposite bank and prepared to wait for a matatu to take me to Likoni. In fact I only had to wait about a minute; I saw a matatu up the road by the KFI supermarket stand turn in the road and drive down towards me. It turned in the Beachalets drive and opened the door for me.
“You’re going to Likoni?” I asked.
“Get in. I take you to Ukunda,” the matatu boy told me.
And so my onward journey had started! I got off in Ukunda to change matatus, and there a strange thing happened. I got on,unfortunately got squished right at the back,with my backpack on my lap, I couldn’t lean forward, or sit up straight, or see anything out of the windows. My neck was permanently twisted to the right because of the closeness of the ceiling. But the strange thing was that several people afterwards refused to board the matatu, because the only available seat was next to me. One man explained that they were refusing because they didn’t want to sit next to a white person. He laughed after he told me this, and seemed to find it amusing. Or perhaps there was just no other way to approach it. At the time, in my discomfort and helplessness, and desire to get moving, I remember just thinking, “Well,there’s nothing I can do about that.” But when I thought about it a bit later it quite upset me, never having before encountered that kind of blind racism. I felt sorry for the matatu boy and driver who because of me had lost the fare of those passengers, who plain refused to get on the bus despite his efforts.
I got off the matatu at Likoni, with the conductor helping me extract my backpack all the way from the back seat, and complaining that it was too heavy. He was a nice guy and after all the other passengers had gone, and as I was strapping on my pack, we had a chat. I explained what I’d been doing in Kenya, for, wow 7 weeks, and said my next plan was to go to Lamu. At hearing this both he and the driver became quite energised. “Be careful in Lamu,” he said, “those Somalis are up to no good!” I was surprised at his opinion, but once again more pressing and immediate concerns were on my mind.
“Where’s the ferry?” I asked him, but he was still telling me about Somali guerrillas on the way to Lamu.
The matatu was driving off by now, and I was still trying to find out where the ferry was.
“Which way?” I shouted after the retreating matatu. The boy, leaning out of the door in standard dramatic pose, pointed right and called back something else about Somalis: “Very bad! Be careful!”
Afterwards I crossed the street, found the entrance, and waited with the hundreds of other foot passengers, crammed into the holding area at the ferry dock like cattle in a pen, standing and sweating in the extreme heat. I crossed on the ferry, got ‘collected’ climbing the slope up the opposite side of the port by a tuktuk tout; touts are always very tuned in to people who are looking for something but don’t know how to find it. I was indeed looking for a tuktuk, but realised I was now at the disadvantage, having been found and appropriated, steered to a particular driver without any choice in the matter. I had a half-hearted argument with three men who were charging me double, gave up, because of the heat, and being outnumbered, and just apathy, got in and had a nice breezy drive round Mama Ngina Drive, on the seaward side of Mombasa, past the remains of Fort Joseph, the Baobab forest, and the golf course. Arrived at my hotel, the New Palm Tree, where I had stayed before when travelling through Mombasa on the way to Diani.
I had arrived at my hotel, and having stayed there once before I was prepared. When the woman at reception told me the price of a single room – 2500 shillings / 23 pounds – I asked if she had anything cheaper. She looked at me again, looked at my shirt that no matter how many times I wash it, I can’t get the red dust out of it, stained by African mud and patched with sweat, my backpack on my back, my wild hair washed with soap in salt water, and for the first time saw through my white skin to the genuine lack of means beneath.
“We can make it 2000,” she said. “That’s OK?”
“Yes,” I said, thinking: “Sure!” I had not expected such a victory so easily.
She showed me to my room, although for about ten minutes she couldn’t unlock the door, kept trying and failing. I sympathised, since I too have spent many an hour struggling with locks here. My cottage in Diani was wonderful but that didn’t lock properly either.
I set down my stuff and then went for a wander. The security guard/ askari was very confused as to the direction I was heading in.
“You want Fort Jesus,” he told me. “That way.” Pointing right.
But I have already seen Fort Jesus and the harbour and the Old Town. I was going left into the city, on a mission. But my mission was foiled because everywhere was closed, shop fronts locked up and barred. This I still find very puzzling. It was Sunday, but Mombasa is Islamic, not Christian, and I’m sure shops in Kitengela were open on a Sunday, and that is only a small town, while Mombasa is the second city. I wanted to see what Tourist Information would tell me about buses to Lamu. They were shut but at least I found where the office is, just past the large white aluminium tusks that arch over Moi Avenue in a large “M” across the road. It was a feat to find the real one, as it was poorly signposted and looked dilapidated, and there are many fake tourist info centres all the way along Moi Avenue, which are really travel agency companies trying to dupe unwary tourists. It reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy has to choose the Holy Grail. All the fake grails are more elaborate and impressive than the real one, and it is exactly the same with tourist information offices in Mombasa! The real one is the dilapidated, poorly marked one. An interesting lesson. I was more aware of the situation this time as I had already fallen for the “fake tourist information” ploy in Diani! Also the map in my Rough Guide located where the true Tourist Info office was, which was extremely helpful.
I took a tuktuk to the station, where thankfully the booking office was open! and I was able to buy my train ticket to Nairobi for next Sunday. It wasn’t as far to the station as I imagined so I walked back to my hotel, past Uhuru Gardens. (Uhuru means freedom in Swahili). I had to extend my stay at the New Palm Tree because I couldn’t find out anything about getting to Lamu. The next day I continued my quest for Information. What the matatu guys had said stuck in my mind though, because they were ordinary coastal Kenyans, and if in their opinion it wasn’t safe to travel north past Malindi, it would in any case be worse for me. The Tourist Info people confirmed the road can’t be guaranteed safe because of the occasional Somali guerrilla activity, and suggested I go to Malindi and fly from there. However I can’t afford to fly. I wandered back, stopping at a fruit stall by Uhuru Gardens to buy a mango, and decided what to do. I opted to stay in Mombasa, since I really like this city. I have no more money to spend now and also I feel less inclination now I’m at the end of my trip to go lighting out into the sunset into the absolute unknown.
The New Palm Tree is, in my opinion, excellent. The staff are very friendly, helpful, amusing and obliging people, and all of them are young. I had made friends with a waiter called Tom when I stayed here the first time. You can have watermelon juice, sodas and other juices (and cakes, but it’s too hot for cake!) from a stand in the hall, and they’ll bring it to your room if you want. I have a room with a bathroom, AIR CONDITIONING! (which is almost vital!), a fridge, a TV, a chair and desk. There is a rooftop courtyard outside my door that is open to the sun, and, at night, the stars. I get breakfast included and I normally have 3 or 4 pancakes, with baked beans and mushrooms in a kind of soup. And then pieces of fruit: watermelon and mango; juice which is either passionfruit, mango or orange; and hot, sweet tea. What happens is, I come down, say Good Morning to the chef, exchange pleasantries etc, I say “I like your pancakes,” and put 2 on my plate. He says: “Take this one,” and puts another one on my plate, and then decides that since there’s only one left, I may as well have this one too, and he puts it on my plate. There are also eggs, and sausages (which I never eat anymore, since one of the children informed me they are made of dogs or donkeys. I did not even believe him, I immediately said ‘no, sausages are made of pork’… It was only later when I considered that I had not seen a pig in Kenya, or encountered any pork, and that the sausages, when I looked, are a dark red meat I have never eaten before – it became highly likely that it was dog). There are also potatoes and tomatoes, but I like my pancakes with beans and mushrooms now. I have paid for my room here in Mombasa until Sunday, and altogether got a discount of 35 pounds off my bill, acquired by using charm and looking poor!
I found a reasonable bookshop, which has a wall full of novels, and a smaller bookcase of travel writing. This was even more pressing to me than finding out about Lamu, since for two days I had nothing to read. I read all my own books about two days after leaving Kitengela, and since then I have also read everything worth reading at Beachalets, where they have a small library. I bought a Paulo Coelho novel, which I’ve now read, and Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, where he travels overland from Cairo to Cape Town. He has already cheated by flying from Cairo to Khartoum, but it’s very good. Where I am up to at the moment, he is travelling south through the Sudan, camping out in the desert. I can’t wait until I get to the parts about Kenya and Uganda as I have been to most of the places that are on his itinerary.
Yesterday on my hunt for an internet cafe (which, clearly,I found!) I stumbled on a “Little Chef” restaurant hidden away shrouded in gloom and green mosaic beside the Tusky’s supermarket. This was such a surprise that I had to go back later on and investigate. I had fish and chips and spinach/or grass. The chips were out of this world! they were amazing! Like real chip-shop chips in England. The internet cafe is on a kind of gloomy attic balcony above a mobile phone shop in Digo Road. I am very very glad that the fans are working today. Yesterday during the power cut it felt like there was no air, or light in here at all, just heat and darkness, and I paid for my time and stumbled downstairs in the blackness. Outside on the street it seemed incredibly bright. I saw the most beautiful mosque nearby, white with blue decoration, and a perfect smooth dome.
This morning I had a brainwave. It has been bothering me that I can’t take pictures on the streets, while walking about. So today I got a tour of the city in a tuktuk, explaining to the driver what I wanted, so he drove slowly about while I could take photographs! He also warned me when we reached the docks and the military base where photography is forbidden and the police will confiscate a camera if they see you with one. A couple of times I also got out to take pictures, and he came to stand with me then even though I didn’t ask him to. It’s just useful to have another pair of eyes looking out for the potential mugger, while I am focused on my camera. His name was David. Yes, another David! He didn’t know much though. Sometimes it seemed as if I knew the names of places and streets better than he did…
“This is a church,” he says.
“The Holy Ghost church?” I say.
“Um… a church.”
“It’s the Holy Ghost.”
“This a park.”
“Which park is this? What’s its name?”
“This is a park like Uhuru Gardens? A public park?”
“Yes, Uhuru Gardens.”
But it wasn’t Uhuru Gardens. You get the picture!
But I was able to see the ferry port, the golf course, the coast on the other side of Mombasa – Shelly Beach- along Mama Ngina Drive, and in town I got to see some mosques, a temple, some backstreets which I wish we could have spent longer in, the tusks, the church, big banks, etc. It was very good. I probably paid him way too much, but I was feeling generous.
Now I am going to the Blue Room Restaurant because I am hungry, and I hope they do pizza because I haven’t had one since Uganda, and that wasn’t a very good one, despite waiting two hours for it. So, bonne chance to me!