Tag Archives: travel

Mutiny in Mombasa


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?)

overland truck2.jpg

Home for the next few days

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.

overland truck.jpg

My surrogate family

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.

kisite campsite.jpg

 

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.

boat on the water.jpg

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.

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Open waters

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!!

Ouch.

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.

shimoni4

Caves are spooky and full of bats

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.

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Off-guard moments with my friendly strangers

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.

fj1

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.

Revolution!

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.

Done!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Real India? No thanks, could I have mine airbrushed and airconditioned please?


The search for ‘Real India’ usually comes up when tourists and visitors see something that does not match their Googled images of India. Like tall buildings. And large stretches of smooth road with no traffic.

At this point, person A usually says something like,

‘This is not the image of India I expected. Let’s get away from the commercial areas, I want to see the real thing.’

Which, of course, is claustrophobic streets reeking of urine, dirty kids begging for money, cows  weaving in and out of traffic and lively market scenes that will later be Photoshopped into artistic black and white pictures that supposedly capture the beauty of Incredible India.

And then everyone goes home happy that they experienced the Real India, not like those fake ass tourists who lounge about in air conditioned coffee shops to complain about not being able to wear tiny shorts in public.

hey! let's travel  like the natives do!
hey! let’s travel like the natives do!

 

But even getting followed by drunk men in small towns, sampling whatever the locals eat at roadside restaurants with questionable hygiene and traveling in rickety, old buses is still not real India. That’s called budget traveling.

‘Real’ anything happens to you when you have to take on the systems of the country: It could be going to a hospital in the middle of nowhere, or having to file a report at the police station. (None of which have happened to me yet, touch wood)

Or it could be being given two days notice to find another place to live due to ‘cultural differences’ with your housemates. It could be having to negotiate with people so that you can keep your job after getting into a massive amount of shit.

Real India is when you start to realize that cultural differences are not ha ha, these people all use bidetsbut are more like,

Oh shit, I’m in trouble because I broke rules I never knew existed and how do I get these people to understand my perspective?

Let’s take the house example. Before, the other trainees had a list of somewhat reasonable complaints:

  • the washing machine looks funny
  • it’s too hot in here
  • the shower does not have enough water pressure
  • I can’t stream movies here because the internet is too slow
  • these guys are always scratching their balls when talking to us.

First world problems (source: http://imgace.com/pic/tag/rfirstworldproblems/)

And now, new housing options:

  • Creepy old female landladies hiding knives in the folds of their skirts
  • paying to live in a building with 20 other people and only sharing one toilet
  • opting to stay in a girls’ only prison ‘Paying Guesthouse’ with a 10.00pm curfew
  • Not being allowed to bring ‘non-veg’ food into the premises

Nothing like being downgraded to bring a little perspective into your life.

Chandigarh’s most famous trainee was a guy named Edward. On his birthday, he convinced a bunch of other trainees to go sleep at the train station, in order to experience ‘real India’.

A friend of AIESEC gave the cops a small bribe to keep an eye on these idiotic daring and adventurous youths. And so they got to experience ‘Real India’ in all its mosquito infested glory. And a feeling of accomplishment because they survived a night at a train station.

Congratulations! thanks for showing us how pointlessly hardcore you can be. (source; http://travelawait.blogspot.in/) )

Congratulations! You just showed us how pointlessly hardcore you can be. (source: http://travelawait.blogspot.in/)

My point? I rarely ever travel  with the explicit goal to make friends with the locals and experience ‘real‘ life in that country. I don’t want to because its difficult. And frustrating. And I would just rather have a good time and let things happen,  than going around smiling at the natives like an idiot, trying to show how well I can fit in.

And in any case, ‘Real country x’ will come around and smack you when you least expect it.