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Friday, April 1, 2011
The Mysterious Disappearing Hostel
The remainder of our time in Nairobi was rather anticlimactic and dull. As the reputation of Nairobi told us *beware! danger!* much time was spent waiting inside a walled hostel compound for Brandon to arrive. Therefore, shortly after his landing in Kenya, Jess and I were eager to depart East towards the coast. Coinciding with our growing impatience, I had befriended two lovely German ladies (sisters, Lena and Judie) at the Nairobi hostel that were also headed in the same direction, and they provided added incentive to get a move on.
The night we grabbed the bus to Mombasa was cold and dreary. I'm generally opposed to night buses, especially after I got my fill of them in South America and double especially since the pace for this trip is fairly relaxed, and I'm not always saving my daylight for seeing things. Unfortunately for us, the cheapest tickets to Mombasa came with a night bus that left at 9 pm sharp (Ha! As if.) from the city center. Solemnly we rolled out of the city lights into the lightning splashed twilight of the rainy Kenyan countryside.
Now for most, I assume, night buses are probably a winning venture. Assuming you can sleep on a bus, you can get a night's rest, save a night's rent while traveling all at the same time. For me, however, I only manage to reap the last two of the benefits. Night buses bring me no sleep; time spent thinking instead, is how I fill the hours. Something about the pitch of a completely barren Kenyan wilderness can provoke deep thought in a person; compounded easily by a dreamlike waking state that results from the sleepless early morning hours.
Sitting there, watching dark shapes roll by the windows, wondering if it was a bush or elephant, I was lost in my head. Between futile attempts to sleep, I caught myself wondering on the purpose of travel. The back of a guide book I read in a hostel said: "We search, therefore we travel", but I'm left questioning the accuracy. What do travelers search for? It certainly can't be the short useless encounters with other travelers, or for photos of random landmarks, which are fleeting and meaningless - merely bragging rights against those left at home. Even worse, do we search for the longer friendships that travel can bring, which in the grand scheme hurt that much worse but last little longer? One theory is that we travel to see the difference. Traveling allows appreciation and understanding. One doesn't know what they have until they explore the alternatives. I'm still not sure, I'll keep looking into this one.
The bus arrived to Mombasa early the following morning. In total, I managed roughly thirty minutes of sleep during the whole ten hour ride, and even that near the end of the trip. In complete frustration I finally decided to lay myself down on the floor of the bus, which actually sort of worked, until shortly after the bus stopped to pick up a bunch of people looking to get a lift into the city. There went my extra seat and clean air. They were a particularly smelly group of individuals.
Once in Mombasa we immediately got hounded by a bunch of taxi drivers; after a little half-hearted and half-asleep haggling we agreed to pay way too much to be taken to a hostel called Mombasa backpackers. This place wasn't in the guide books, and we only knew of it because of the German girls we met were already there. The reason, we found out, was apparently because they had just switched to a location. Yet, this place didn't look or feel like a backpackers. The taxi after several minutes rolled out of town proper and out into the land of giant mansions with large fenced-in compounds.
At the gate, a masaii warrior in traditional garb let us in and we rolled up to the least hostel like hostel ever imagined. It honestly look like a million dollar mansion somewhere in the Hollywood hills. Also out of place were the proprietors of the place, a pair of (I think) gay lovers, one Peruvian and the other South African, who were nonchalantly smoking weed as we walked into reception (the living room?). For all intents and purposes it looked like two guys waited until the family of this house had left and then jumped the walls and started a hostel. Yet, rent was fair, the beds clean and the grounds had a pool - so we stayed.
Mombasa as a city is in my opinion, nothing special. We walked around the market district and found it to be much the same as all Africa - people will try and be your friend for your money. Along the coast, however, Mombasa is a pretty city. We walked by the old colonial fort (very expensive to enter) and through the old stone buildings of the coast. At one spot by the shoreline there was a rather picturesque scene of middle-eastern decent children jumping from a ten foot rock ledge into turquoise waters, while nearby the older men spent a lazy Sunday fishing the coast with a piece of line tied to their fingers. The breeze blew strong and fragrant off the Indian Ocean there, and for a long time I was content to just sit and exist.
From Mombasa, the five of us, as we had met with Judie and Lena, caught an early morning bus north along the coast to the island of Lamu. The bus ride was another seven hours, and the ferry out to the island thirty minutes on top of that - but the trip was definitely worth it. I'm not sure how widely known Lamu is outside of Kenya, but the word on the streets is that it is like Zanzibar, yet better as it doesn't get the traffic. I'm not sure how true this is, as there was a lot of tourists and have never been to Zanzibar (yet), but I deeply enjoyed my time there.
First of all, I'll start explaining Lamu by saying it is an island where many things are the same. Every man is the captain of a dhow boat, and for a 'fair' price, willing to take you snorkeling or diving or dolphin watching, or simply run you over to the next beach - it's the least they could do. Furthermore, everyone has a sister that does amazing works with henna tattoos, or a wife, but we were fairly certain that everyone's wife is another man's sister. Lastly, every man that doesn't own a dhow boat (which is very few), is instead a struggling artist that just wants to get by. They will have a backpack of their work on them and explain how they toil endlessly in their small houses to make their art, and again for a 'fair' price, are more than willing to offer me their services in creativity and shirt design.
In a less cynical tone, Lamu is indeed breathtaking. The old Islamic settlement hugs the coast closely, and features tall stone buildings and narrow street corridors. Indeed, the streets are so narrow that no motorized vehicles are allowed on the island (not exactly true) and instead the brunt of all transportation and labour falls to donkeys. In fact there are over four thousand of the beasts on the island, and one can hardly turn a corner without seeing two or three of them just standing and being.
The joke of Lamu is that you come for a day and stay for a month. Like most travelers, we laughed this off, and then fell right into the trap. I honestly think that part of the reason is that it is a pain in the ass to get there, and no one wants to hurry back to the dusty bus ride south. Moreover though, I think it is really just the intoxicating feeling of waking every morning with a view of the coast, and the taste of the salty air on your tongue. It truly is a beautiful island, and the real beauty in it is that it is small enough to be known to the hawkers after a short period - and they will leave you alone almost completely in a few days time.
We were obliged to do some of the touristy stuff, and over the week we were there we went on a dhow trip, snorkeled among the corals of the Indian Ocean, ate fresh fish on a boat near a long sandy beach and even ventured to hop on a donkey and go for a ride. I will say this in parting, the Ocean to some holds a magic of the soul, but almost subconsciously I always find myself wishing for freshwater when I swim in one.
Sorry for the length of this blog, I am almost done. Let us finish:
After a drawn out and heartfelt goodbye, we finally summoned the courage and strength of will to leave Lamu. If you look at my last blog, you can take that as an indication of how little time I was really willing to waste while on that beautiful chunk of rock. From Lamu we set out to Malindi and there caught a matatu thirty minutes further south to Watamu, and ran into something we never expected: Italians.
It feels weird even to write this, but that specific section of the Kenyan coast exists in the orange hue of bronzer that exudes from the skin of Italians. Excessive hand gesturing and copious man thongs were indeed included. It was mind boggling to say the least. Little African children used to yell hello at me, and now enthusiastically sang Ciao in chorus. Stop it! Indeed, the presence of the Italians didn't just make the Muzungus annoying, but in turn the locals as well. As it was explained to me, Italians expect a a little banter, and as a result the salesmen got that much more aggressive and annoying. No dhows in Watamu, instead everyone has a glass bottom boat.
One neat thing we did do in Watamu was visit the turtle watch. The turtle watch is an organization that rescues injured turtles from the coast of Kenya and rehabilitates them back to health. On top of that, they monitor the local beaches for nesting sites and deter tourist vandalism as well as relocate nests that are in prone positions. By some stroke of fate and Brandon's mumbling of "we want to do things...", we ended up being put to work; cleaning the turtle tanks and doing a beach survey. We did however get to see two of the sick turtles, a green sea turtle and a hawksbill, which were both amazing. It is funny to say that the beach survey involved transects and other fun scientific methods, such that it felt like in a day in Watamu, I did more actual science than months in Uganda.
As we said goodbye to Watamu we also had to say goodbye to our German co-travelers, who by this point had been with us almost two weeks. This was a really hard parting, as I had spent a lot of time with them and became pretty close. Much like when Chris and Richard left us, we had to part with good friends unknowing of when we'd see them next. Bye Judie and Lena, I hope to see you soon.
From Watamu we went back to Mombasa, and immediately booked tickets south to Dar Es Salaam and Tanzania. From the bus station we hopped into a tuk tuk and headed back to Mombasa backpackers, which had proved a worthy enough hostel the time before. The tuk tuk brought us back to the gate of the compound and we paid him and sent him along before pushing open the heavy gate.
Immediately we noticed that the ever present door guard in masaii dress was missing from the little hut next to the gate - along with his craft table. Odd. As we moved further in we noticed more absences - such as furniture. Where was the patio furniture, the outside bar fridge and bar stools? Lastly, where were the people? The ever presents: the owners and the slow to leave travelers? Then the people came, out walked a Kenyan family: husband, wife and baby, and proceeded to stare at us with surprise and disdain. Who were these three uncouth travelers with large backpacks and the nerve to simply walk into their gated haven.
Where the hell did the hostel go? We sat outside the gate for the next thirty minutes trying to decide whether we had dreamed the whole place up in the first place. Then we started going over every fishy thing that had ever occurred there, like how when I asked if they were going to build a sign for their hostel, the owners immediate response was "probably not". Were they even real?
After much running around we finally managed to get rooms at dive called the Tana guest house. Although the staff was a little strange and the digs a bit shabby, when I woke up at 6am I could see my bus parked across the street, and that is pretty awesome.
I now write to you from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and I don't know how to feel about it. Kampala was ugly, but endearing thanks to its energy and people. Nairobi was ominous and threatening, yet beautiful and metropolitan. Dar seems to have neither of these, it lacks the hustle and bustle to compete with Kampala, and is void of the pretty green space that begrudgingly made me kind of like Nairobi. I will remain for the time being, undecided.
Thanks for reading,