Saturday, August 7, 2010
This last week has been a whirlwind. On Sunday, a week ago, I joined the entire staff of Kituo cha Sheria on a Civic Education Caravan. We traveled around the suburbs of Nairobi on an open-air bus (no seats, everyone was standing) passing out copies of the proposed constitution and answering questions about the referendum. It was such a blast! Between the speeches and Q&A sessions, the bus became a huge party. There was a DJ who blasted pop music, and three male dancers who were dressed in safari gear with padded tummies and butts (to look like British colonialists) performed every time we stopped at a town. My friend Audi tried to teach me how to dance like a Kenyan, and we fell down at least twice when the bus sped around a corner or went barreling down a hill. I also may have broken some toes as I stepped on several people’s feet. But you try learning to shake your hips while standing in the middle of a moving vehicle while not holding on to anything.
I did have an unpleasant experience at one of the stops though where a really drunk man kept following me and pulling my hair. Luckily the whole Kituo staff was there and I was surrounded by friends who shoved him away.
Then, on the way back into the city, we passed by the remnants of a “No” caravan/parade. They were booing us and giving us the thumbs down (we weren’t officially campaigning for “Yes” but were just ‘educating’ people and asking them to make the ‘right’ choice…) so in retaliation, we started throwing constitutions at them. What fun! Overall, it was a great way to spend my last day with the Kituo gang.
Jamie and I spent Monday and Tuesday at RCK as usual, said our goodbyes on Tuesday, and then hurried to town to catch the bus to Mombasa (a city on the coast of Kenya). The 8-hour bus ride was painful, but not nearly as bad as the bus ride last year from Kampala to Kigali. When we finally arrived in Mombasa, we got off the bus and found ourselves in a crowd of people who kept shouting “Jambo!” and “Taxi!” at us. Our two full days in Mombasa went a lot like that actually. I found myself really missing comparatively hassle-free Nairobi.
Anyway, the next morning, we took a matatu from the guesthouse where we had slept to the ferry that would take us out of Mombasa town and south to Diani (a town renowned for its white sandy beaches). We went up to the top floor of the ferry and looked out at the beautiful view of the ocean. It was then that the ferry ride from hell began. A old man appeared almost out of nowhere and stood right in front of me and said something that sounded like, “Are you from Baltimore!?” I was confused and mumbled something like “No.” And then he started going on a rampage about how we were fat, smelly, white, pregnant pigs that didn’t know how to bathe. He kept stringing insults at us for about five minutes, when finally, the man sitting next to Jamie stood up and shoved the guy away. But all he did was move a couple feet in the opposite direction and continued to shout in our direction. At one point, he started talking to the other people on the ferry and said something like: “let’s kill the white pigs.” I’ve never been the recipient of such hatred in all of my life. And granted, the man smelled of booze and was probably insane, but still, it’s not an experience I’d wish on anyone. When the ferry reached the other side, we lost sight of the crazy guy. But the man who had shoved him off followed us up the embankment to make sure we got into a matatu okay.
We eventually made it to Diani beach and rented two small cottages across the street from a 5-star resort. The only way to the beach was through the resort, and so we walked up to the gates and were only slightly surprised when they let us in no questions asked. I can’t even explain how amazing this place was. You walk into the lobby and find yourself standing on a transparent glass floor and look down to see giant goldfish swimming below your feet. Then you walk through the main entrance to a deck encircling a huge baobab tree surrounded by a pond filled with lily pads. Walk forward some more, and you’re on a balcony that overlooks a swimming pool and palm-trees, and beyond that, the green Indian Ocean.
The view was unbelievably beautiful. For a moment I thought it would be a really great place to have a honeymoon… but then we got to the beach. About five or six guys were pacing around by the edge of the water, hovering almost, like sharks, waiting for people to approach the ocean since there was a policeman keeping them away from the resort edge. We went to go stick our feet in the water and were pounced on immediately by the closest fellow. “Jambo!” He said as he approached us with a handful of necklaces. “Apana asante” (No thank you) we said and tried to walk away. But he followed us down the beach, and I finally yelled at him and said, “If we were interested in what you have there, we would have said so!” And he finally backed off. Then another man came towards us trying to get us to go see the dolphins, and then another about a safari, and then another and another. For the first time in my life, I found it impossible to relax at the beach. Sure, the view was breathtaking and I felt I was in Pirates of the Caribbean, but I don’t think I would want to go back to vacation there just because you get hassled so much. But can you blame them? That is how they make their money. If it weren’t for tourists, Kenya wouldn’t have the economy it has today.
We had dinner at a little Italian restaurant – owned by Italians – and then went to bed early. The next morning, we said goodbye to the beach, went to check out a nearby sacred kaya (forest), and then made the trip back to Mombasa town. After dropping our things at our guesthouse, we took another matatu and then a tuc-tuc (a motorcycle carriage) to Fort Jesus. According to a plaque we found on a wall, Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese in 1593, was captured by Oman Arabs in 1698, became a government prison in 1895, and then was declared a national monument in 1958. As soon as we got out of our tuc-tuc, a tiny gentleman with an official tour guide badge ambushed us and began to tell us all about the fort. I explained to him calmly that we appreciated the sharing of information, but that we really didn’t have the extra money to tip at the end of a tour, so he might as well forget about it. We also explained to him that we weren’t interested in going into the museum inside as it was 800 shillings a person and we were running out of money. So he said “No problem, no problem! I’ll take you on a tour of Old Town for 200 shillings each.” Jamie and I looked at each other and decided that Old Town sounded pretty cool, and that 200 shillings each wasn’t a bad deal. We accepted. It was probably the best decision we made on that trip.
Aga Khan (that’s what he called himself) then took us on a whirlwind tour of the Old Town part of Mombasa. It was really an amazing tour – Old Town seemed almost more Arab than African. So many ethnically ambiguous looking people! Small narrow streets not even big enough for a donkey cart. The balconies and doors reminded me of certain parts of Morocco. I was picturing Matt Damon jumping from window to window above our heads (from Bourne Ultimatum when he’s in Tangiers – yes I know I use movie references a lot). We saw Vasco de Gamma’s house and an old slave market where they used to buy and sell human beings before shipping them off to the Americas (that place gave me chills for sure).
Aga Khan was an interesting character, he probably only weighed about 100 pounds and was half Omani and half Indian. During our tour, we passed some women sitting in front of their house making traditional Swahili doughnuts (I forget their actual name) and Aga bought a bag for us to try. Seriously the best thing I may have ever tasted in my life. Better than Krispy Kreme. They were round and small, like doughnut holes, fresh out of the hot oil and smothered in honey and spices. Along the way, Aga also bought us two other treats, one was another traditional Swahili dish (small balls of fried spiced dough - or maybe it was chickpeas - with chili and lime sauce poured overtop) and the other was a bag of cassava chips hot out of the oil. When we were brought back to the entrance of Fort Jesus, we ended up giving him 300 each instead of the requested 200. We needed the rest of our money to get back to the guesthouse. Aga then hailed a tuc-tuc and rode with us all the way back to the guesthouse to “make sure we didn’t get overcharged” by the driver. Really, I think he was just looking for another tip, but who knows…
All in all, it was a trip filled with both really high highs and really low lows. But I’m glad I got to see the coast because it is so different from the rest of Kenya. Ah and of course, those who’ve been following the news know that Kenya passed the new constitution with just about a 70% “Yes” vote. No incidents of violence reported yet, and all seems to be going smoothly. Congratulations Kenya! :o)
Now I’m in the airport in Paris, waiting to board a second 8-hour flight. As Bethuel says, people ought not to be sad to say goodbye, but glad to have been able to meet in the first place. Thanks to everyone I met in Kenya, and thanks to all of you who followed my blog. I really had a wonderful seven weeks, but am definitely looking forward to seeing my dear friends and family asap. Love to all, Sarah.