Check out the giant ant hill on the left – wow. Some of these were structured around tree trunks and crept at least six feet up towards the sky….
I survived a grueling weekend in the land of tourists, Mombasa. When I think about it now, I guess I spent about 18 hours on a bus just to go to the beach. It was late when we got to the city after the incredibly hot, eight-hour bus ride from Nairobi. My jeans were soaked with sweat and squeezing into a matatu with my bags was not easy. We found a hotel for a decent price after some looking, and were given a higher price as soon as the management saw me – so we slept without air conditioning. We did wake up and go straight to the public beach, which was not yet very busy, and I luxuriated like a true tourist should, I ate mangos with salt and red hot pepper and dank coconut from the shell and floated in my bikini in the warm, salty water.
(This camel tried to eat my leg shortly after this photo was taken and I jumped back in fright – they have MUCH larger mouths than you’d imagine!)
But I only had a few hours to relax before scads of people swarmed onto the beach, all of them staring at me if within eye sight. Benja even overheard one couple speaking in his mother tongue, Kisii, about how I must have hired him as an escort and how they hated people like me. Indeed, there were a lot of unusual couplings to observe at the public beach – the most common being the unsurprising old white guy with a beautiful young African woman – but there’s a weirder version of this I wouldn’t have thought of, “Beach Boys,” handsome young black men with old white women. I found this fascinating to no end and spent as much time as possible looking for such pairings.
We were supposed to be picked up by Benja’s uncle around 3pm, but ended up waiting until about six. I was amazed at my own patience. I sat on the ground and leaned against a water resovoire, still wearing my backpack, and faced the stares of the glaring public. I’ve tried to be generous and accepting and respectful, but I’ve become so tired of these stares, and began glaring back. Anyway, the point is not to highlight my ability to glare, but the fact that I have learnt to be amazingly patient here. Not only did I spend eight hours on an excruciatingly hot bus, get sunburned and have to wait for three hours to get picked up by Benja’s relatives, then wait while they bought groceries, then go to their hot house, full of children, and have to watch cartoons in a hot living room and be told not to leave the property – I was okay with it.
I think I might be learning something! Or else it’s just Mombasa, where everything moves a little more slowly, perhaps even tempers.
The place wasn’t that bad though – they did have a Masaai guard. I’ve heard they are popular guards, known for their craftiness and honor. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but one of the uncles translated for me and the guard, Steven, (not an incredibly traditional name…) told me about how he had had to move to the city to make money to support his family because of the drought and the difficulty in taking care of his cattle. He let me check out his club and bow and arrow, and he carried a large knife and wore beaded jewelry, all of which were definitely hand-made and I slipped him some money before I left because I couldn’t help it.
The huge compound was located in the middle of a Mombasa slum, and while Ben’s uncle said that he felt the inhabitants around the mansion protected them, like last year during the violence following elections here, his hiring of a Maasai guard spoke to the truth of his fear.
It was hard being in such a beautiful place and not being able to leave the compound – the uncle said it was too dangerous, and when I asked if I could just walk to the beach that night, he became very upset because he thought that was code for partying. Mombasa is a big party town, with lots of bars and discos, and his teenaged daughters are clearly very into it. As soon as they understood the misunderstanding they tried to take advantage of it and told their father they were going to take me out, because I wanted to go party. I, of course, was hot and tired and just didn’t want to be stuck in the mansion, but had to respect the situation. I stayed within the walls until mid-morning, where, despite the sister’s efforts to make us leave later, we managed to get to the bus station downtown and headed back to Nairobi on an independent line (the most dangerous to ride because they have less resources – so if you break down, no one comes and replaces the bus, you just sit until it’s fixed, which makes the bus full of people very vulnerable to “bandits,” especially at night.)
Mombasa Road is a particularly dangerous highway because it’s so rural and there’s so many hyenas and bandits people rarely walk along it like they do near Kisii. Hyenas frequently eat people – a young boy recently saved his mother from one, though they were both badly mauled. Another big story here this weekend was a man being killed by a hippo in Lake Victoria after his boat capsized. Seeing so many accidents on the highway, mostly tipped-over semis, furthered my morbid line of thought. I was also discomforted by the lack of seat belts and the fact the bus was extremely overcrowded – I couldn’t lean back because so many people were packed into my row that our shoulders wouldn’t fit; Benja had a kid on his lap who had no seat; and at least five more people stood; while a very annoyed young French couple were forced to sit in a row that had a seat with no back. A very stereotypical African bus experience, though by Kenyan standards, this bus was actually pretty bad. I imagined our driver in a head-on collision every time he passed a semi, usually fuel-tankers, on the narrow, curving road and barely made it. But, I didn’t die and I’m on the homestretch now – it seems I might actually survive, even though there are so many ways to die in Kenya.