Holidays were magical when we were children. Then they grew progressively duller as we began to rebel against the subtle pressure to do something ‘special’ and fun and slowly the holiday traditions began to disappear. We stopped trying to pretend that we care, and eventually it got to a point where ‘staying home and doing nothing’ on the big days became a bizarre mark of honor.
Obligation sucks the joy out of everything.
Due to a series of unfortunate events over the holidays, once again, this year, I found myself staring down a lonely Christmas. This time though, I saw it for what it was- a double edged sword- either a pity party for one, or an opportunity to do whatever I wanted with my time, free from expectations. So I went online, hoping to find a sweet little deal that would whisk me away to a magical place far far away, if only for a moment.
As luck would have it, I found a really great package deal for two nights in Mombasa, mostly- inclusive. It was really good. Like too good to be true. And when something seems too good to be true, it usually isn’t. But they promised snorkeling and camping, and if everything else went to shit, at least I could remember that I was in the ocean, if only for a little while.
So I paid up and packed my bags and soon enough, we left Nairobi at 4.30 am sharp in our gigantic overland truck, destination somewhere in the South Coast. (Where all the rich people are?)
Once in a while, I enjoy long road trips. I like drifting in and out of conciseness. I love watching the landscape change, and when that gets boring, reading a book and then just staring out into the distance, completely zoned out. Mindlessness can be meditation.
We stopped at Mtito for lunch. At 11.15 am because after that there would be nothing but the endless scrublands of Ukambani, the SGR and the occasional wild animal until we got to Voi.
It was all fun and games until we got to the ferry to cross over to the South Coast. The traffic stretched for kilometers and kilometers and was barely moving. We sat there for four hours, inching slowly towards the front of the queue.
If you continue at this rate it will take Kenya 1 000 years to develop.
Japanese guy dragged along by his daughter and family
Of course it was a hot mess. Cars were jumping the queue, facilitating this service with an unknown amount of money passed on to the gatekeepers. On the left, thousands of pedestrians were waiting to board the ferry. Apparently during peak season, at least one million passengers make the crossing, each round trip. You have to wonder, where the hell are all these people going to?
A massive truck from Botswana caused a commotion because it got stuck and very well could have caused a horrific accident. All the while, unintentionally ironic messages about safety and wearing life jackets on the ferry were playing on a huge LCD screen on the right on loop.
At this point all I could think was, it is surprising that any of us live past 30 in this sorry excuse of a country.
Eventually we crossed over, and only had a few more hundred kilometers to go. We pushed on in the darkness, past Diani and other places until, finally, finally, we got to our destination. Shimoni. And more specifically, the Kisite Mpunguti campsite managed by KWS.
I can only use ‘managed’ in the loosest way possible. Managed means near total darkness and abandoned looking shelters with no identifiable purpose. Managed means only two sockets in the entire campsite. It means chaos and inconvenience for those with more delicate sensibilities and crushing disappointment for those with fantasies about hot showers and decent toilets.
The next morning, we had mahamris and tea. I only mention this because there was no coffee. Not even a single sachet of Nescafe which I would have paid good money for. But the chai rangi was amazing. Black sugary tea infused with cardamom, all served up by Moha and his crew of hardbodies, who, to be honest, looked more like gang bangers than chefs. But then again, he confessed that it was actually his wife and daughter who fed us, which made a lot more sense.
Finally we set off to the sea. The sun was out, we got onto our boat and headed out to the marine park.
Sailing in the ocean is amazing. The breeze feels great, the sun looks great, the sea looks great and you can’t really worry about anything. It makes you feel aireeeey.
Swimming at the marine park was bliss. It wasn’t like the other park up in the North Coast. The water was deep. And there were so many fish. I couldn’t identify any of them, and our guides only knew the names of a few. But still, it was fantastic, seeing thousands of tiny fish darting about in big shoals, and a few solo ones near the bottom just chilling and taking it slow. The corals too were gorgeous, although many of them are still dull and lifeless because they haven’t regenerated after the havoc wreaked by the last el nino- and other factors, re global warming.
I swam out far and kept going farther, enjoying the total silence under the sea and drinking it all in. Eventually the tide started coming in so they dragged us back onto the boat, destination Wasini Island for lunch.
We went in and had more coconut rice, tiny pieces of red snapper and more seaweed. I asked for a bigger piece of fish and I was told
Hapana, utamalizia wengine!!
I could live with the baby portions, but not the payment of 700 shillings for a feast of sea food that clearly never materialized. Daylight robbery right there.
We walked through the island and it was your typical backwater village. Many of the windows had no glass or screen and we could see the dark interiors. Raggedy washing hanging on the lines. Groups of teenagers hanging around tuck shops. It felt a little desolate. And invasive.
Wasini island made me sad. It reminded me of how badly our government wastes peoples’ lives and just how on our own we are out here. In this country, where we are taxed and taxed and then taxed some more and we barely have anything to show for it.
There is nothing romantic about poverty.
We went back to shore and dropped by the Shimoni caves. As our really enthusiastic guide told us, the Shimoni site is the only visible part of a network of underground caves that were used to transport captives from the interior to sail to the slave markets of Zanzibar.
They were maintained by Arab slavers who grew rich from ivory and human cargo. Then he showed us some brutal looking metal hooks on the walls that were used to chain rebellious slaves for a violent beating as a warning to the rest.
Today they are managed by a community group and entrance fees are used to pay fees and buy medicine for the local dispensary.
Back at camp, discontent was brewing. The sad lunch had left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths and if I know something, it’s that you never mess with food (and over charge for it). Bad food makes people catch major feelings. People have rioted and countries have been brought down because of food related issues. (Hello Arab Spring)
We packed up and headed back to Mombasa, waited another couple of hours on the road to board the ferry, drank amazing tangawizi coffee by the roadside and shacked up in some dump of a hotel in downtown Mombasa.
The next day, the plan was to go to Fort Jesus and then hang out at the beach and leave for Nairobi at 6.00pm.
While we were taking pictures at the Fort and learning about the plague, poisoned wells and Portuguese graffiti, our facilitator materialized and said that we had to leave for Nairobi at that very moment because the truck was not authorized to travel at night. He was quite flustered and nearly hysterical about the whole thing.
Now the other thing that you don’t mess with is people and their children. We had families in the group who had young children, and most of them had woken up ready to go swimming. Many of them were even dressed for it and I am sure that they patiently endured Fort Jesus because it was simply a prequel to the real (swimming pool) treat that would surely come afterwards.
Before we knew it, there was a stand off. No leaving Mombasa before the kids get to swim. The facilitators were full of threats and bluster. But we had heard the call of our leader and we were not budging.
It all came spilling out. The food. Oh the terrible food and the squat toilets at that waste of a campsite. Back to the food again. Me helpfully pointing out the fact that they couldn’t really claim surprise because they knew about the truck’s travel restrictions.
Lines were drawn. We weren’t going nowhere.
Eventually we reached a compromise. We drove to a campsite by the beach and pitched tent. They made one last effort to get us to pay for the extra night.
But we had smelt blood and moved in for the kill. We would pay 20% and they would pay 80% for their fuckery. That translated into about 300 shillings per person.
There was no greater feeling than the sweet, sweet taste of victory. The kids got to go swimming, the rest of us with no responsibilities headed to the beach for one more glorious day by the ocean. The sky was bluer than blue and the beers were chilled just right. There was a sense of camaraderie because we had fought and won the battle together.
And for one more night we could forget about our cares and live in the moment.