Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Kenya Coast

It finally happened. How could it not? Yes, I finally got sick. Usually it’s Jeanette who is suffering from a range of maladies. I seemed to be born to live in squalor. My mother did always teach me that a few germs and a bit of dirt make you stronger, and she seems to be right. But my body finally gave way on the coast of Kenya when traveling with my brother Stuart. I’ll spare you the disgusting details; just assume that certain things are not supposed to come out of certain orifices, ever. Of course, that said, Jeanette was sick, too, and yet again missed an opportunity to go diving. Maybe she’s really not meant to? I mean, it’s just not natural… But I digress.
Due to our unexpected illnesses we spent a day just hanging out in Malindi, a not very exciting Italian resort town on the coast of Kenya. The beach was wonderful, but the town was this weird amalgamation of the typical slightly dirty, slightly chaotic east African town with a rich European resort. My brother noted that it was not nearly as weird as Watamu, a similar town a bit further south. Neither of these towns were destinations unto themselves. They were just stopovers between exciting locations like the Gede Ruins and the Marafa Depression. So here’s a quick summary of the coast of Kenya:
Mombasa: The birthplace of Swahili offers really, really good street food. On the top of the list was fruit. For 30 cents you get a large glass of blended avocado, mixed chopped fruit, and mango-passion juice. It’s amazing. It’s possibly the best street food ever offered. Add to that the super sweet, gooey halwa, and the fried pizza-pocket-like things and one couldn’t ask for more. The town also boasts Fort Jesus, a large coral fort built by the Portuguese to protect the island once they stole it from the local Swahili people back in the 17th century. Then the Omanis took it from them. Go figure. Cool fort, though.
Zanzibar-style door
Kilifi: We went to the tiny town of Kilifi with the hopes of visiting a Kaya, or a sacred forest. In the end, that ended up being too complicated. Instead, we popped into the Mnarani ruins and snake park. The ruins focused mostly on two 14th century Swahili mosques, but the guide didn’t seem to care much about them. Though he told us their history, he also emphatically told us how a group of Americans tried to pick a fight with a group of Arabs who still use the site for prayers sometimes. He followed his obligations and pointed out the tunnel through which slaves used to be transported to the port on the creek, then he showed us his true baby: the snakes. Apparently his family members are snake people. All of his siblings work with snakes, and two died from snake bites. He says his mother is upset whenever he visits because she assumes he’s bringing deadly snakes in his bag. The nerve! He let us hold small pythons and other snakes that he rescued from homes around the area. We weren’t allowed to play with the black mamba though…
Our guide with his true love.

Gede Ruins: Stuart brought the rains to the coast. Apparently he brings the rains everywhere. It poured the day we toured the ancient city of Gede. It’s unclear who built the ancient city that thrived in the area from the 13th to the 18th century. It’s not mentioned in any historical documents of the time. The remaining walled city contains a number of mosques and a beautiful palace with well-preserved arches and latrines. The houses of the rich people packed the area in the inner wall and left only narrow alleys between them, similar to the living Swahili cities of Lamu and Zanzibar. In some of the houses were bits of Chinese pottery, oil lamps, scissors, and other pieces that helped archaeologists determine some of the cities trading partners. They think the town died because the sea moved further away and hindered trading and the water table lowered reducing access to fresh water. I personally think they left because giant biting ants took over the area. When the downpour lessened we tried walking through the forest around the ruins but were chased off by the ants that literally crawled up our pants, biting the entire way.

Blue monkey

Marafa Depression, or Hell’s Kitchen: Many, many years ago a rich village developed near the coast of Kenya. The people had so much money and so many cows that they bathed in milk and refused to share with those in need. As punishment, the gods destroyed their town and left a gapping red and white pit in its place. Alternatively, millions of years ago a complicated erosion process of wind and water wore the sandstone down to create what it is today. I might have to go with the second explanation. We had proof of it because as we walked through the unearthly, striped landscape, it started to pour. Rivers of red silt covered our feet, and the mud squished beneath us to reveal thin layers of red, pink, orange and white. To get out of the canyon, our guide had to lead each of us over a very slippery ridge to the top. I did part of the trek on my butt, because let’s face it, I’m a pansy. Also I like mud. It was one of the best days of the trip, despite being the beginning of the aforementioned illness.

After the depression we spent the laidback day in Malindi before heading to Lamu. As we waited for the bus the next morning, Jeanette finally got to learn firsthand why I carry Benadryl antihistamines, steroids, and EpiPens whenever I travel. I decided to buy a newspaper to read more about the Kenyan invasion of Somalia. A terrorist group from Somalia has been raiding Kenya and abducting foreigners, two from Lamu and most recently two aid workers. They used this as an excuse to enter Somalia, something many suspect the government has been planning for a while. I sat in the small wooden booth used by the bus line as an office. My eyes started itching shortly before the bus arrived and within minutes my eyelids were swelling shut. This could have been caused by multiple things:
1.       The ink from the newspaper – I had never read the Sunday Nation before…
2.       Something in the air in the little office or on the old car seat that served as the bench
3.       Witchcraft
Now, I know that some of you doubt the last possible cause, but I would say you never know. One of the stories in the paper was about a person who was hit by a car and as he was taken to the hospital, some schmuck stole his phone. He posted a sign saying that if it wasn’t returned by Sunday, that person would be cursed. Since another community member was recently cursed and started eating grass, the phone was quickly returned. It all goes to show that what you believe is just as much reality as anything else. It’s not much different than people believing that Jesus can heal illnesses or that picking up hitchhikers in one place will increase your karma and help you get a lift later on. (Let me tell you, hitching karma is definitely real.) So maybe I was cursed, but the Benadryl  quickly knocked down the swelling and completely knocked me out. I think I enjoyed the dusty, bumpy five hour bus ride much more than Jeanette and Stuart. Finally, we arrived in Lamu, Kenya’s version of Zanzibar.
Due to the somewhat recent abductions, Lamu was a tourist ghost town. It was a fun game to count the white folks. We had our ocean view, super budget but with great roof top terrace hotel completely to ourselves.  Firstly, Lamu is hot. Hot like sweat dripping from your knee caps hot. It’s another super laidback town with narrow, maze-like alleys between tall buildings with carved wooden doors. Due to the lack of tourists everybody and their brother was seeking us out to offer dhow rides or other excursions. Unlike Zanzibar, though, they took the refusal quite well. We were content to wander the streets and explore the town on our own. Between random walks, chitchatting with kids who thought it was funny I actually spoke Swahili, and excessively long but tasty meals, we didn’t have time for silly boat trips. We spent most of a morning in the best museum in Kenya which highlighted Swahili culture and was chockfull of interesting bits from old houses, jewelry, and Muslim ceremonies.
Our most touristy excursion was to the long white sand beach about 30 minutes away. Though we managed to not get abducted by Somali pirates while on the isolated stretch, we did get had. As we headed toward the road to Shela beach a very convincing, thin, toothless man fervently informed us that we couldn’t walk to the beach because it was high tide. He insisted that we would walk into water up to our neck. We believed him and hopped into the boat for two dollars each. The infuriating man lied through his teeth. Walking there would have been a piece of cake. When we arrived we told him how angry we were that he lied. I mean, yes, he was trying to make a buck in slow times, but bold face lies just aren’t ethically okay in my book at any time. Once again, we were walking money bags. I wish I knew how to curse him… We gave him half the amount and proceeded to the beach. Swimming and walking on the sand was wonderful, and I burned my shoulders to a crisp, despite many applications of 70+ sweat-proof sunscreen. We walked back to Lamu with no troubles whatsoever.
Which leads me to a point we promised we would share: Lamu is safe. Go there. It’s nice and relaxing. Then fly back to Nairobi because it’s much shorter and prettier and your traveling companions will like it more as will you.

View from our rooftop terrace.

Cache for sacred items in typical Swahili house.

Donkey - the only form of transportation on the island.
City view on our way out of town.
After the coast Stuart returned to New York, and we are now safely in Ethiopia where we splurged on multiple in-country flights and are excited about the journeys ahead. Seven months down, almost two to go!

1 comment:

  1. This is quite the narrative for someone who would have limited/no Internet. :) I'm just going to say fascinating, and that is way understated.