People kept asking us before we left, and, indeed, people were still asking when we arrived in Kenya, what kinds of plans we’d made. Plans? Why would we need plans? And, in truth, for the bulk of our independent travel, or non-work-related couple travel, we do NOT have a strong habit of planning out what we’re going to do in foreign climes. There are several reasons for this, including lack of time back at home for non-essential trip work (a planned hotel everywhere is clearly non-essential to me, whereas VISAs and shots for exotic places: serious business); hesitancy to choose something based solely on what Lonely Planet says about it; and a not completely retired sense of adventure—we want to see what things are like when you’re simply observing them, hoping desperately that you won’t, after all, have to sleep under that stunted acacia in that city park(dangerous both because of other “sleepers” in the outdoors—human and otherwise—and because those trees are full of THORNS. One popped my first Thermarest pad back in ’93, and I found the butts of several more in the soles of my Tevas after that trip.
All that said, we had actually been thinking about places we wanted to go in Kenya. I had been in ’93 and ’96, and one of the places I had dearly loved and insisted we return to during this trip was Lamu. We would fly, as flights are common and the bus bumps along for 6 hours or more on sand roads (after the “normal” roads give out), through the middle of the almost-border lands of Somalia. Our original plan, then, as we had, in fact, been discussing some basics, had been to fly up for our second week to Lamu—on the north coast, near the Somali border—and spend a week sailing on dhows, fishing, eating fresh coconuts, and exploring 8oo-year-old ruined mosques. Concurrent with our planning period, however, the Somali pirates kidnapped three Europeans off beaches in the Lamu Archipelago, and then Al Shabab, the Somali militant Islam group, began making trouble for Kenya by crossing the border and setting off lots of bombs. Lots of friends and strangers, from the US and in Kenya, agreed with us that avoiding the northeast was in our best interests. Okay, so, no Lamu. So . . . what next?
We knew we wanted to go to Mombasa as well, and as Mombasa is 70% Muslim (Lamu must be 95%) we would definitely be able to experience the call to prayer (although Kenyans, being relatively secular in action, rarely dropped what they were doing to high-tail it to a mosque.)
Mombasa feels like one of the most foreign cities I’ve been to. Even Tokyo, Yokohama, and Hokkaido felt pretty reasonable and recognizable (Naples, not so much), even with virtually no language in common between me and any of the Japanese (not an absolute truth as “arrigato” in Japanese is a direct descendant of “obrigado” in Portuguese.) It took us a couple days to grow comfortable incorporating Mombasa’s set of norms into our own, pretty jumpy set. Old Town Mombasa is a warren of narrow, crooked streets with curving walls split by intricately carved doors lining them below, and balconies hanging above. Beautiful, but no place for a clear vista, and a lot of hiding places for crooks. Who, as far as I can tell, we never actually saw.
(Note: this paragraph and some of the post written on 22 Dec) Dear Readers, I am going to pause here to say that there has been a lot going on over the last two weeks since Ian and I arrived back at home, and it’s been difficult to find a good time to write. At the moment, I’m on a glorified stretcher on the ground floor of Harborview Medical Center, waiting for my second Gamma Knife procedure. I will be going third today, which means that I arrived here at 6:30 a.m., I was given Ativan and some other antianxiety pretty soon after that, I didn’t sleep even a wink last night, and we’ll probably get out of here today around 6 p.m. All of this is to say that I’m going to switch to bullet points of the highlights I remember from the previously unmentioned portions of our trip.
- Our hotel, The Royal Castle, was just the right blend of seriously comfortable and not too expensive. From our little balcony on the third floor, we could see the crumbling Hotel Splendid, which was where our group leaders stayed in aircon comfort when we students were all living in infinitely less comfortable situations in private homes. Mine, where I had a bed to myself (family maid slept with the littlest kid; the other two each had a bunk), was pretty fine. One of my friends was placed in a family of 9 children; she had a bottom bunk and they shared each of the others three apiece; one night, one of the little ones above her wet the bed and it ran all over her. Water was patchy, electricity too, and the temperature was about 100 degrees and about 98% humidity.
- (Note: this part and below is being written 6 Jan, and then I’m giving up) We had a fancy supper our last evening in Mombasa on a dhow—a handmade wooden sailboat—which had been built in Matondoni, a little village in the Lamu archipelago, a nice morning’s walk from Lamu itself. One of the first things we did, all of us LC students, upon arriving at Lamu in 1993, was to be boated up to Matondoni where we were able to watch a newly-build dhow being launched, rolled on logs down to the sea. I felt for this trip that I had, in fact, managed to get more of Lamu than we’d initially thought we were going to get. There was some miscommunication about how we were actually to arrive at the dhow, and it had left the dock by the time we were delivered, but they put us on a dinghy and took us out into the starlit lagoon to meet our cruise.
- Requested—and delivered—masala chai for breakfast.
- Tuk-tuks, those three-wheeled rickshaw-type taxis in Thailand, imported in the last ten years from Italy, HUGELY popular in hot, busy, noisy, Muslim Mombasa. The taxi drivers are very sad.
- Lots and lots of great, brightly-colored fabrics along Biashara Street, beaded sandals and belts, ancient sewing machines, giant shopping bags, dirt, crowds, tuk-tuks, watercarts, fancy dresses (worn under bui-buis, the Swahili name for the black overclothes worn by Muslim women. Bui-bui also means spider.)
- Ft Jesus, built by the Portuguese and used as a fort for a couple hundred years, I believe. You can no longer just run roughshod over Ft Jesus, meaning we had a guide, and we actually learned something about the place. None of which I remember anymore.
Here is perhaps the best example I can give of Kenya delivering exactly what is wanted and needed, without any struggle or pre-arrangement necessary: Near the end of our trip, we knew we would need to get from Mombasa back to Nairobi. We had done the 8-hour bus ride, and weren’t all that interested in taking another bus all the way back; we were likewise not all that interested in taking an expensive flight back. Kenya is, of course, full of national parks which are, in turn, full of exotic, dangerous zoo animals; there happened to be at least two parks that I knew of—Tsavo East and Tsavo West (split by the highway and railroad)—situated between Nairobi and Mombasa. “Maybe we can get a safari,” I proposed to Ian, “that will pick us* in Mombasa, and drop us in Nairobi, with two days of touring.”
It turns out that, Yes We Can. On the verge of a heat-induced anxiety attack, I followed Ian up the stairs to a safari company listed in our Lonely Planet book, which happened to be located only a couple blocks from our hotel. While I contemplated the end of the world and put in my oar only when absolutely necessary, Ian made plans to get us back to the capitol, plans which involved leaving early (6:00am!) two days later, but would allow us to see Tsavo West for a couple days, then Amboseli for a couple days (with an overlap of parks in the middle), and two nights’ stay in fancy lodges, the old Voi lodge and the new Amboseli lodge. For maybe $200 less, we could’ve been dropped on the highway to catch a long-distance, Mombasa-Nairobi bus, at the lunch stop. But by putting that $200 in, we were able to have an entirely private safari with just us and our driver/guide in the car—PLUS, he could then take us directly back to our friend’s house just outside Nairobi. We enjoyed having a driver all to ourselves as we made our way back up that main highway our last weekend in Kenya, seeing no fewer than five large hauling trucks tipped over off the shoulders of the road, plus one that was upright, but on fire.
The short rains are not the best time to view animals in Kenya, as the greenery around them is full and lush, and they’re often hidden; plus, the several lodges that have well-placed watering holes find that their holes are competing with natural watering holes. We saw one mud-red elephant drinking from the closest hole to Voi lodge, for example. Our talented guide did, nevertheless, manage to show us a little of virtually everything, including, during our last evening drive in Amboseli, right as a major rainstorm came up and we had to lower the roof of our van, two lions making a bunch of little lions. Our guide was VERY impressed with himself, finding us some cats to see, as cats can be quite difficult—being that they are cats, and not in the least interested in doing what humans would like them to do.
We also managed to see Kilimanjaro, on our last morning, on our 6am game drive. Mzee (old man) Kilimanjaro had been hidden for more than a week behind rain clouds; I asked as nicely as I could, though, and the next morning, for maybe a grand total of 15 minutes, we were able to see the snow-capped summit of this giant beast.
I know there were many more details that I would have put in here had my December gone more the way I was expecting it to go . . . but it didn’t go that way, and the way it went took more time than I could have imagined. But this last bit about the Kenya trip: It was SPECTACULAR. We had an absolutely amazing time. We got to do everything we wanted to do, and everything worked out, and we lost nothing, and gained new friends as well as new things, and were reminded of the importance of open minds, of asking for assistance, of listening to our bodies. Of loving life.
*”pick us” is very Kenyan. They never pick anyone UP.