So, after the serious must come some lightheartedness.
But first, a mini-digression. In primary school, each beginning of term we would be asked to write a composition titled ‘How I Spent My Holidays’. We would also be given a page limit eg 1 page in Std. 2, 4 pages in Std 6 etc. Some smart kids would fill up the pages with sentences like: “we swam and swam and swam and swam. Then we walked, and walked, and walked, and walked’ etc. I promise, this has no ‘filler’…in it’
I spent 13 magical days in Kenya in April and I have to say, I seriously wish that man would go ahead and further develop supersonic travel so it becomes the norm. I ‘wasted’ two whole days (either way) traveling from Vancouver to Nairobi and those were two days I could have spent in more enlightening ways!
When you arrive in Nairobi after 27 hours of travel, the last thing you need is to tangle with the Kenyan customs officials. So, here is my strategy to avoid that unnecessary airport drama: I figure that these guys do not need you to be all ‘stuck up’ ie well heeled, smart or internationally traveled, but rather they prefer the innocent, wide-eyed and smiley Pollyanna, Sister-in-Christ type who would never, ever, dare to bring in contraband/taxable merchandise without declaring it. I figure that there’s nothing I can’t get in Nairobi, so I don’t bother taking anything other than gifts for family/friends that way avoiding long exasperating conversations or having to pay duty. I also try to wedge myself before the guy dressed all ‘urban’, wheeling what is clearly a flat screen TV (any customs guy worth their salt will want to pounce on this guy so they wave me through quickly). My strategy works. The bureaucrats smile back at me, ask no questions, stamp my passport or wave me through without hesitation. I’ve never had to open my suitcases- one of my nightmares is having to open my suitcases and watch as some guy paws through my stuff with one of those ‘looks’ on his face (and any Kenyan woman knows what I mean when I say ‘looks’). The strategy works in Canada too- the less interaction with officialdom I have, the better.
Anyway, there was the usual scanning of the crowd outside to find E. (I always fear that something happened and my ride from the airport isn’t there), then it was out, out and away! After getting out of the airport, driving along Mombasa road, we encountered a bunch of zebras grazing sedately along the median! I have never seen that. It was kinda cool to see how Zen the animals appeared, strolling along without a care in the world munching away on the grass.
My admiration was cut short by something odd up ahead of us. A pair of headlights was zooming down the road straight towards us through the morning mist! A matatu was speeding along, followed by a couple of cars, directly towards us! I almost died! “Isn’t Mombasa road a dual carriage way? The guy is driving on the wrong side of the road!” In my disbelief, I could only wonder how brazen matatu drivers had become!
E. was all relaxed like this is normal, “Relax, it’s a road diversion. There’s construction on Mombasa Road.”
Phew! I thought I was going mad.
Welcome to Nairobi.
A couple of hours later, all refreshed and scrubbed we headed out to my parents’ house for their 36th wedding anniversary party. It was nice seeing all these people from way back in the day. My parents’ original bridal party was in place (it was quite interesting to see how they had aged), as were my granddad, my great aunt, several aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. One friend of my dad hadn’t seen me since we’d been on a flight from Nairobi to Montreal together about 8 years ago and here I was introducing my husband to him- talk of time flying.
Digression: of course there had to be at least two awkward “when are you guys having a baby?” moments. Why do people think they can ask us that? Sheesh! Do I ask you whether you need to take Viagra? Or the results of your last Pap Smear? Or whether it’s true that you had an affair with my friend’s dad? Then don’t ask me about babies or the lack thereof. Part of me wishes I could reply to the baby questions with answers like, “Well, of course we do want to have a baby, but we can’t have children…” or “we want kids, but after the third miscarriage…” just to shame them into realizing how intrusive and maybe insensitive their questions might be.
Maybe that would be too mean? But you get the drift? If you insist on asking me such intrusive questions, you might get answers that you can’t deal with.
The party was so much fun. We got tons of lovely pictures courtesy of EGM which captured every moment- from the setup, to the serious speeches, the funny speeches, the poignant moments (discovering that my grandfather’s sister paid my father’s school fees so that he could go to high school left us teary-eyed. She is so humble about stuff like that); EGM got it all in a very unobtrusive manner. Thanks! One moment that had us rolling our eyes was this prayer that was so long that at one point, in my tiredness I found myself eating my food, before the reproachful stare of an aunt reminded me that the prayer was still going strong. Religion isn’t my thing so when I am in Kenya I make a conscious effort to be respectful of other people’s practices. (I find that respect for others’ beliefs and religious choices is not really a two-way thing for most Christians I have encountered in Kenya but I’d rather take the high road. I will blog about my take on Kenyans and religion one of these days).
Digression: my sister could be a professional event organizer (or in the military). She had us going through our paces as soon as we walked through the door like a well oiled party machine. There was a job for everyone (I found myself finishing the flower arrangements, carting stuff around- no pleas of exhaustion allowed here…OK, I wasn’t really that tired). Our outfits were scrutinized to see if they would pass muster for the picture session, the programme was finalized (I was given the task of giving the vote of thanks which my inner showman relished, I must say) and we were warned to stick to the schedule (my father’s brother was the ‘master of ceremonies’ and I must say he turned out to be a stickler too!), the chef was watched like a hawk to make sure he wasn’t dawdling. Basically, she cracked the whip, ordered us to jump (indicating when and how high), made sure everything was shipshape- earning her the grudging respect and title of ‘the General’! With her dreadlocks maybe Field Marshall would have been more appropriate.
Before going home I had been having a recurring dream about living along the Kenyan coast for months. So of course, this was high on my checklist of places to visit. I haven’t been to Mombasa since the 1990s for one reason or other and I was a bit apprehensive in anticipation of the humidity and heat- I get sunburned, end up with seriously swollen feet/fingers (once, in Montreal, I made the mistake of leaving a ring on my finger on a hot summer day. I thought I’d have to get it cut off!) and suffer from terrible heat rash in very ‘tropical’ conditions so I was worried that maybe my dreams of the coast would turn to ash once we got there. But still, I swore we would go there.
I think I should have studied anthropology. There are so many things about human culture that interest me. Anyway, I have a list of things that I’d like to do or experience, which are on a list I call the “Anthropological Experience List”. I like to immerse myself in ‘different’ experiences that I would not otherwise encounter in the regular course of my life. One of the things on my list is the Kenyan long distance bus trip. I have read so many bad stories about what can go wrong on a long-distance bus ride in Kenya but I also know so many people who have taken buses and had an uneventful trip, so, I figured that a trip to Mombasa might as well be the time to cross off one item on my List.
Before I left Vancouver, speaking to E. about taking the bus, he mentioned that he has a friend who travels very frequently to the coast on a bus line called “Mash Bus”…I mis-heard and thought he had said “Umash bus” and I remarked that it can’t be good for an undertaking business (Umash is a funeral home service in Nairobi) to also run a bus company- I mean, talk of a wide range of customer services!
Anyway, mishearing cleared up, on the Wednesday after Easter, we were on the overnight bus to Mombasa. I was armed with a fat novel that I intended to read on the bus- until I discovered that the overhead lights were disabled; I had made sure to pee before boarding after my query whether the buses came equipped with toilets was met with raised eyebrows from the guys; I also had a midnight snack and water (with the bathroom issue, I was going to have to be most economical with my hydration- just enough to sustain life was my plan). The start of our journey was uneventful. Most passengers seemed to have stopped for chips in town as the air was thick with the aroma of fried foods (what is it about travel that makes us eat without ceasing?). The couple seated in front of us had a young baby but she slept all the way, much to my delight. The bus was air-conditioned but to my dismay, the crew switched off the air conditioning as soon as the bus made it past the ‘under-construction’ part of the highway at Athi River. I figured this was by design, because the bus was soon full of silent, somnolent (and rather sweaty) folks.
Based on my research and the numerous news stories I have read over the years in Kenyan newspapers about gory bus crashes, there was no way I could sleep- I generally don’t sleep when I travel, but the stories had given me added concerns. Plus, the driver seemed to be driving in the middle of the two lane highway most of the time (apparently this was to leave room to dodge runaway vehicles in either direction- it made me uneasy. “What if he fell asleep?”) I cracked opened a window for some air which helped a whole lot- at least it didn’t bother anyone…I was worried that someone would ask me to shut it but they were all asleep. I gave up on prodding poor E. to stay awake and keep me company a few hours into the trip. I figured that in the event of an accident, he would probably prefer to die asleep than awake and aware of the horror (yes, I know, very dramatic on my part). He is so much more zen than I am.
The night passed with us zipping along the highway, overtaking the dark, hulking shapes of lorries and tankers lumbering their way down to the coast. In the opposite direction, caravans of the same would rumble, sputter, creak by in the night, heavy with their mysterious cargos from the port of Mombasa. Occasionally we would come across a police road block- usually in a small town where the 24 hour business concept flourished.
At most of these shopping centres, you could buy everything from tomatoes, onions, fruit, sodas, food, to clothes. There was this feeling of being in a dream- it was surreal to see a market stall fully stocked with vegetables at 3 in the morning! The only thing that stood out was that there were hardly any women at any of these kiosks or stalls. I guess the women only manned the stores during the day (hmm: women, manned- sound odd together). At some of the police checks you would see a group of policemen huddled around a wood fire to keep warm. I felt sorry for them- surely we could provide them with some shelter. I can only imagine what it would be like to sit at the checkpoint in the rain. Sadly, my compassion was dulled by an encounter with a pair of traffic policeman later on that blighted everything. The long haul drivers must experience a very different Kenya overnight than most of us do.
I dozed off fitfully and awkwardly, waking up at the first unscheduled stop somewhere before Voi where we picked up a priest and two nuns. I wondered how they had arranged for the bus to stop at 3:30 in the morning on a lonely stretch of road. I also wondered where they had come from. I worried for a few minutes that they might be gangsters, but seeing how relaxed the crew was, I relaxed too, and went back to scanning the dark surroundings for anything to interest me. I have to say that once we left Voi, the road was beautifully smooth and the curving hills and dips made for an interesting drive. I think next time we drive to Mombasa we will do it during the day- I would like to see more of the landscape.
Arriving in Mombasa I was struck by the run-down look of many buildings. I guess the sea air causes havoc on paintwork, because there were some buildings that looked like coral was growing out of them or something. Crown Paints are making their mark all over Kenya though; I noticed some buildings lavishly (if not a tad garishly) adorned with paint courtesy of Crown Paints (I wonder how that works- I wouldn’t mind a fresh coat of paint on my property even if it meant sporting a brand name). Overall, I really loved the old buildings in downtown Mombasa- especially the ones that had residential space above commercial stores. There was something old and solid about the designs. Kind of what you see in the older parts of Nairobi. The occupants were slowly stirring, and you could see some people sitting on their balconies to catch the morning breeze. (Added to my anthropological experience list: to live in downtown Mombasa). Around town there was quite a bit of traffic, with tuktuk taxis zipping around madly around the larger cars.
After looking around for a real taxi (no tuktuk for me this time around), we finally made it to our vacation rental- in record time thanks to Mr. ‘Andretti’ Onyango who seemed to think we were seeking a thrill or something as we sped across Mtwapa Bridge. Thank goodness the weather was cool.
This post is going to be long it seems.
The first order of business was to renew my driver’s licence since E. had forgotten his in Nairobi, so we trotted off to town in the vacation place taxi (more on this later too) and headed to Forodha House. Well. Let’s just say that the long lines at the renewal counter made me shiver. The inefficiency made me want to scream. The line wasn’t moving, but at the counter, I could see the official stamping renewal forms- clearly there was something afoot. It was clear that you needed an ‘inside man’ to get a licence renewed otherwise we would be stuck there all day. I started to re-think my view on corruption in government offices (and the place was closing in 2 hours- I did not hold out hope!). In the end E.’s friend was our ‘inside woman’ and I got my renewal (without bribing, but needing to have a hook-up just to renew a document really made my blood boil. That and the guy who attempted to jump the queue…a good glare made my point and he scuttled to the back of the line.)
Next, was to find a rental car. E.’s friend once again to the rescue- she knew someone who runs a car hire company so she made a call, and soon we had our paperwork done, the insurance verified (more on this later), the tank filled with petrol and I was merrily gunning the engine of a Toyota Vitz…actually the engine seemed to be gunning itself because even when my foot wasn’t on the gas, it sounded like I had a lead foot. But the owner assured us that it was not a major issue, and since we planned to spend time tooling around, no major sightseeing or driving planned, just major relaxation and maybe catching up with friends in town the car was OK for our purposes.
On our final day, it turned out that a friend from Nairobi was down in Shimoni on the South Coast looking after some business, and we decided it wasn’t a bad plan. Off we went, the Vitz revving loudly, windows rolled down, music at a decent level (I can’t drive with the music blaring-it’s as if the sound impairs my eye sight…yes, sounds dumb, but I am unable to focus with the music on too loud). On the way to the ferry I dodged the usual tuktuk suspects, yelling at one driver at some point that “A tuktuk is not a car!” after he tried doggedly to overtake me as I approached Nyali Bridge. It was fun sitting in line for the ferry, watching the water, the people, the hawkers trying to sell me water even after they saw me drink from my own supply among other curiosities.
I gingerly drove onto the ferry (again, I seemed to recall stories of drivers missing the ramp and driving right off into the sea, so I suggested that we take off our seatbelts in case the Vitz decided to go in for a dip- the way it was revving I had cause for concern). In no time we were off the ferry and aiming towards Shimoni (very good roads too). For a while there were very many matatus but they were mostly well behaved, letting one pass quite easily, then in no time the road was ours. Whistling past us were interesting signs- like the one for Shika Adabu Primary School, or ‘Dubai’, we were enjoying the good weather, and the road. Memories of a past holiday with my family came flooding back as we approached Msambweni where my late uncle was part-owner of a large farm (complete with colonial-era bungalow on whose verandah I battled my one and only case of Malaria while the family frolicked and enjoyed themselves). I was surprised how it all came back. Eventually we went past Ramisi (Sugar factory), and made it to Shimoni. Where I almost killed us- I tried to read a road sign and almost drove into an oncoming lorry! Yikes!
As we rattled down a murram road towards Shimoni centre, something somewhere in the rear of the Vitz began to make ominous creaking and groaning noises. Not good. But still we soldiered on. Finally, when I thought that my brains would be dislodged from all the bumping and rattling, we drew into Shimoni. By this time we realized that we had underestimated how long it might take to drive there, so we barely had time for a quick look-see (and to find some local prawns to take back to Nairobi) before hitting the road. I have vowed that Shimoni will one of these days be a place I call home. Not only is it small, beautiful and walkable…it was very laid back and relaxed. I think the rest of Kenya misunderstands the coastal attitude- if you have food in your belly, a roof over your head, and a livelihood that keeps you occupied, what more do you really need to be happy? I think that the rat race is overrated and these folks have figured it out. I would have loved to take a trip across to Wasini Island but that will come later, as will the trip to Tanzania on one of the commercial boats that ferry goods south from Shimoni.
We were making good time to catch the ferry, drop off the rental car and head out to the airport when it all started to go wrong. Horribly horribly wrong.
Earlier, on the way to Shimoni, I had noticed some traffic policemen on the roadside but they seemed to be more interested in the passing lorries than regular car traffic. So I wasn’t bothered when one of the policemen stopped me- I had renewed my licence, we were wearing seatbelts, all the insurance stickers on the car appeared genuine and up to date (plus the car hire company had come recommended). I handed over my licence which he scrutinized, I said little, waiting as he walked studiously around the car. And you all know how ‘big’ a Vitz is- it should have taken him two minutes but ten minutes later he was still standing and staring at something on the car. I figured eventually he would hand back the licence and wave us off. Wrong.
He came back, and then asked me, “Mama, wapi PSV inspection sticker?” I was stunned! What was he talking about? PSV (Public service vehicle)? Then I remembered that all rental cars are classified as PSVs. I told the guy that this was a rental car and I had no idea that they were supposed to have inspection stickers, so of course I hadn’t asked the owner. I offered to call the lady from the rental place so that we could clear it up (figuring that she had a sticker and that they had overlooked to stick it on the car!) The next few minutes felt like a lifetime as E. dialed the woman’s number. I knew we were really screwed when he said “You don’t have one?” Basically the cheapskates or scam artists (depending on how you look at them) at PerVig Car Hire (I am naming them here because this is true…if ever you go to Mombasa, do NOT use these guys) had not bothered to get an inspection sticker. Basically, she wanted us to do whatever it would take to get out of the situation, then she would refund us! I.e. she wanted us to pay any bribes necessary to get out of this situation we were in. I WAS SO PISSED.
I was pissed at the car hire people, I was pissed at the cop who was being obtuse. I was just one flaming ball of anger ready to flambé someone.
So standing on the side of the road, this police officer starts lecturing me when I asked him why I was expected to pay a fine when it was not my mistake. More importantly, why, if he was so concerned about road safety didn’t he ask for the name of the rental agency to ensure that they were sanctioned in some way? From across the road, the policeman’s buddy was yelling that I needed to be ‘taught a lesson’, that ‘I should be begging for forgiveness instead of asking what law I had broken. I decided that I wasn’t going to pay a bribe, and E. could tell from my body language that I was about to lay down on the road demanding justice or arrest! For about 45 minutes I pushed and pushed the policeman to cite which law I had broken, and said that I would rather pay a fine to the government of Kenya- which he kept hedging. I realized that I was seriously cramping his style because a.) arresting me would mean a long haul to the police station where he would have to actually do his job and book me, do up paperwork, cite me or whatever, before releasing me which would result in b.) him losing out on the lucrative bribes that even now, I was stopping him from collecting an opportunity which his partner was fully exploiting (In the time we were stopped at least 5-10 cars were flagged down and their drivers extorted). I realized that I was in danger of assaulting the man- such was my rage that I suddenly went silent, refusing to speak to him (why try to reason with a fool?) leaving E. to do the talking… this was also a ploy to memorize his badge number (I have a good memory for numbers) which I later saved on my cellphone…and which I will publish here as soon as I retrieve it from my Safaricom SIM card. Right then I wished I had superpowers to just smite him and his partner!
In the end E. defused the situation and got back my licence for a sum which was only paid because he was worried I would be arrested and beaten up by the two goons in my state of rage. As we were leaving, one of the policemen told me not to be so mad and I just turned, gave him an evil glare, and in my anger I just said to him, “This is the Kenya we want? Maybe policemen like you deserve everything that happens to you.”
These guys were harassing us, law abiding citizens when around them I bet there were many more serious traffic offences to prosecute. For some money he was OK letting me go back to Mombasa in an un-inspected vehicle which incidentally the owner told us was lined up to be rented later that evening and unleashed on the roads.
I was mad that we gave him money but didn’t know what else to do- how do you get a policeman to arrest you when he refuses to, preferring to extort a bribe? They didn’t even have a car so how would he have got me to the police station? More importantly, if I have never paid a bribe, how am I supposed to understand the ‘lingo’ of bribery? Do you pretend to drop the money casually in the cop’s hand? Do you wedge it in your licence (too late for that at this point), or do you just blatantly hand over a note? It is crazy and frightening all at once. Other thoughts occured to me: Were they even on duty? I realized how short sighted they were- corruption is a chain. Letting me go could be putting lives in danger- who knows whether the Vitz was roadworthy? It certainly hadn’t been inspected.
I was furious at the owner of the car who clearly did not care for anything but the money…I was tempted to have the policemen impound the car and have her come out and save it, but the man wouldn’t even arrest me. To top it off I had filled up the tank and we hadn’t even got to half full. So, I was getting shafted whichever way I looked at it.
I was so angry and there was nobody to direct that anger against! I hated the way this 1 person held their power over me. I was so angry at that moment that I just wanted to scream at someone.
E. knew I was mad about paying the bribe but at the same time he was proud of how I had made the policeman squirm. Soon he had me laughing about reducing bribery just by haranguing the guy! I realized that is not a bad strategy to curb bribery by holding up the policemen for hours on end tee hee! Soon we were back in Mombasa where I let E. deal with the charlatans from PerVig who would not even reimburse us the extorted amounts, claiming not to have any money. Expecting trouble the woman had come with some guy (I guess an ‘enforcer’) who E. could easily have taken, but we had had enough of that crap and just gave the their crap Vitz back and prepared to leave.
I was so adrenaline driven that I was packed and ready to leave in no time. The lady at the front office was really nice and that made all the difference after the day we had had. I thanked her for the good service and we were on our way to the airport.
I almost had a coronary sitting in the taxi as we inched along the road to Mombasa airport. Word of advice: leave plenty of time for the journey otherwise you will age considerably by the time you get there. I was glad that we had checked in online and didn’t really have much in the way of luggage but some woman at the Kenya Airways counter had to almost ‘make my day’ by snapping at me over her ground crew-mate’s shoulder that “even if you check in online it doesn’t mean you have to come late!” My blood was ice cold and I told her in a very cold, clipped tone, “after the day I have had, you do not want to mess with me. Plus, we are here well before boarding time and do not have luggage so please, spare me the snark! If I wanted that kind of treatment I would be taking a matatu” I was not going to let one more person talk to me like that. She will not be snapping at anyone again. Trust me. I had had enough crap for a day. I noted her name for the well worded complaint letter I fired off. So that 1 day almost ruined my view of Mombasa but I refused to let that happen.
I do not want to leave this post as an angry reminder of what was generally a good trip. So, the good things about that part of my holiday:
We met up with a friend at Moorings restaurant for dinner. The food is not bad, but could be ‘lighter’- seafood in many restaurants in Kenya seems to be generally accompanied by cream based sauces? I had shrimp with some ginger sauce but I think it was too densely creamy; delicious but a bit on the heavy side. The staff was really good: attentive and not at all obsequious, friendly, knowledgeable in a good way! I would definitely go back. One of the waiters in particular, Fondo, had us laughing about a crocodile in the creek…apparently he goes fishing and swimming, even though he knows there’s a croc in the water! He was like “Mamba atafanya nini? Ni mtoto huyo!” I was just so amused. They also organize boat trips which work out to very reasonable rates per person.
Rick Seaside Villas: Very reasonably priced, clean, air conditioned. Their view of the ocean has been marred by some apartments close by, but for someone who doesn’t like hotels (like me), it’s a good option. They have a rooftop bar manned by some really really pleasant and helpful guys. The front office staff were very good too- professional and courteous, and there’s the added plus of a driver when you need taxi service anywhere (He got us safely to the airport in spite of all the traffic and my gloomy backseat predictions about missed flights).
Shimoni: I enjoyed our short visit, the good road was a plus (though the kms from the main Lunga Lunga road to the town centre are passable but bone jarring in the wrong car) interacting with the locals, taking in the sights. The fish market wasn’t open at the time since the fishermen weren’t back yet, but we managed to get locally caught shrimp which I really enjoyed. Next time I would like to sample a Swahili feast, check out Wasini island and basically visit the place as a mwenyeji. Our guide (named Zulu) was really knowledgeable but also laid back and not too touristy. We saw the holes aka Shimoni referenced in the Roger Whittaker song (not for the claustrophobic).
Clearly this post has grown too unwieldy and long- no room for the other stuff I did which I had planned to blog about- I guess that will be for part 2.
The Moorings website: http://www.themoorings.co.ke
Tel: +254 722 843 343, +254 736 547-923
They are really great. The general manager’s name (as of Apr 2009) is Francis Wekesa…he and the staff make the dining experience very pleasant. (The restaurant has good bathrooms too 🙂 A major item on my checklist)
Rick Seaside Villas
Their website: http://www.rickvillas.co.ke
Tel:+254 41 476 524, +254 20 209 5709
We dealt with Pamela who was v. professional.