KENYA

Kenya Coast

I take the train to Mombasa, Kenya’s second biggest city, on the coast. The station is lovely, and the people having coffee while they wait are relaxed and good-looking. The ride is pleasant, the train is very clean (a voice comes on asking people in a lovely Swahili accent to put rubbish in the bins) and people are respectfully quiet. I meet a great family, a woman with two girls, a preteen and a fiery small child. We end up comparing hand clapping games. “You also do like that?” the preteen asks. This got me wondering about the origins of these things. Could they have come from Africa to America?

The train takes us through Tsavo National Park, kind of a train safari, so the little girl and I scan the landscape for elephants. It’s a 5 hour trip and then I’m in the city and at a hostel near the beach. The beach is really beautiful, white sand and turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, which are calm and glassy in the morning and wavy in the afternoon. I walk a long way down the beach, swim, then head back, but a guy calls out to me to let me know that I can’t go back the way I came: it’s high tide. Kind of unfortunate because that is the only way I know how to get back. The nice guy offers to walk along with me. It's a really long way to the hostel via the road, but he’s good company.

I do some sightseeing nearby: the marine park, and Heller Park, a zoo with hiking trails and nice forests and big trees. There are some white crocodiles with white eyes who fascinate me with how motionless they are. I enjoy quality coffee at the Java House in the nearby mall, and a frozen yogurt place and a good restaurant. Malls in Kenya, like in Egypt, have tight security; you’re searched to enter.

A guy I met on the way to safari is staying at the same hostel, and leaving the next day for Kilifi, a small town by the beach I've heard good things about. I haven’t seen downtown Mombasa yet but I like the idea of traveling with someone else. The guy is nice and cute, a 30 year old German named Sasha, so I decide to come back later on my way back to Nairobi. We take a local minibus matatu to Kilifi. The backpacker place, Distant Relatives, is the most beautiful I have ever seen; like a luxury resort, but with bunkbeds. The bunkbeds are hand-crafted with hardwood logs, tall enough to sit up in easily, with quality mattresses and sheets. Sasha and I are the only guests when we first arrive. There’s also a nice kitchen we can use, a beautiful sitting area, and a pool.

The nearest beach is actually on a river-like bay, not nice and sandy, so I take a boda boda — motorcycle taxi — to the real beach a few miles away. Wow. It’s eerily stunning, like something out of a dream, vast, and empty of people. As I walk down the beach I encounter a few young guys who approach me. I've heard that in this part of Kenya there are a lot of female sex tourists, women who come for the guys known as “beach boys” (but prefer to be called “beach operators”).

On this vast deserted beach I encounter a 30-something English woman. We sit together and chat a while. She is known as “mystic Meg” and has been renting a large house that was built for a wacky movie in the 70s, a mansion with all open rooms, where a group of hippies have been living. She’s been in Kilifi for 3 months. Later I visit the little commune and the characters there. There’s the South African guy who’s been building a solar bicycle, and a quirky young German couple. They're building a mud building for dance and healing on the beach, on land they’ve been given by some local elders. I check it out to offer my ideas how to finish the floor.

Somehow 5 days go by in Kilifi, though there’s nothing to do. I meet a badass dreadlocked young woman from Nairobi who gets me some weed and keeps me entertained with her perspective on politics and race and feminism. Some environmental activists sail through in a sailboat built out of plastic. It’s awesome! They have little devices that shred plastic into useful strips that can be made into beautiful rugs. They show a film about an activist from Kenya who pretty much single-handedly got plastic bags banned in Kenya. This guy, James Wakibia, is my new hero.

I meet a sweet local guy named Kenny at the environmental activist meeting. He’s a tall, good-natured guy in his 30's with medium length dreads and a cool bohemian style. He’s kind enough to show me around and fill me in on some of the local history.

He takes me to a village where we drink the local coconut wine, which is pretty potent. Before drinking it we pour a little libation of it onto the ground, an offering to the ancestors. This practice, which my great teacher Martin Prechtel taught us, is shared by indigenous people all over the world.

Kenny with a beautiful baobab tree.

The next day Kenny takes me on a walk to a more remote village where he has arranged for me to see a traditional dance. I end up hanging out with the children there for an hour or two. They are so fun and adorable, I want to take them all home with me. We play jump rope, which is exhausting. A few of the girls are amazing at it. Some girls braid my hair while the others study me. The oldest girl, 13, speaks some English. She says, “Your white skin is so beautiful. I want white skin.” The others nod. I say, “Your black skin is so beautiful! I want black skin .. it’s so much better in the sun, and you don’t get lines on your face like these!” I point out my crows feet. They scrutinize them. The older girl blinks as she processes this, then looks elated and excitedly speaks to the others in their language, drawing her finger across her face.

I wasn’t trying to make her happy, I was telling the truth: I do feel inferior around the people of Africa. My skin seems blotchy and thin in comparison, and I feel small and weak. Most of the genetic diversity of the human race is in Africa!

The kids say something to Kenny that makes him blush and laugh. I ask what. He says that they said that if he married me, he would be getting a nice person for a wife.

The adults are ready to do the dance with me, and tie a skirt around my waist. They play wooden drums, an infectious beat. I follow alongside a woman and try to move as she does. I love to see the children dance.

That night I end up kissing the German guy, but don’t feel much. What I want is flirtation, seduction, play. He starts getting sexual too fast, and I lose interest. He takes it well. The next morning he leaves to go do an internship at another beach town. Kenny texts me saying he’s in love with me. I tell him he barely knows me, and it's time for me to move on. I take a tuk tuk to Watamu Beach, a resort town that interests me because of the Gedi ruins nearby.

I dislike Watamu, it’s all fancy resorts and Italians. The only budget lodging is a depressing backpacker place with broken mattresses. The beach, however, is incredible. You can walk forever. It’s extremely hot on the Indian Coast though, unpleasantly so. By the end of the day I’m burnt to a crisp.

The Gedi Ruins are in the largest remaining patch of forest on the Kenya coast. It’s beautiful, and I am the only person there. The energy is profoundly peaceful and deep. These ruins are from the 13th century Swahili-Arab culture that was mysteriously abandoned in the 17th century. The stone walls have Arabic-style arches and a pleasing geometry. A huge tree grows from the stone. I meditate for quite a while.

Next I fly to Lamu Island, since it’s a long way north up the coast on very rough roads, close to the Somali border. Lamu is a Unesco World Heritage Site, as it's a very old and well-preserved Swahili town. The Swahili culture, an Arabian colony from 900 years ago, blends African, Indian and Arabian influences. Pretty much everyone is Muslim.

One of the reasons I came to Lamu is that cars are not allowed on the island; donkeys and the wooden sailboats called "dhows" have been the only means of transport. Unfortunately, the rich have started bringing motorbikes just in the last year, which many of the locals are trying to fight. Motorbikes are especially dangerous in the narrow winding lanes of the old town.

Lamu is an interesting town, with crumbling white plastered houses and ancient ornate doors in Arabic style, with geometric carvings and metal ornaments.

The winding streets of the town help keep the hot pounding sun off you, but are barely wide enough for one person to pass especially if there is a donkey.

The guest house is a traditional Swahili house, charming white plaster with an inner courtyard.

When I escape from the donkey-shit maze and walk along the seaside I can breathe easier. Like in Egyptian towns there's a korniche, a walkway, along the ocean, which is pretty nice. There are some well-preserved old buildings and it’s interesting to see men unloading goods from their old sailboats onto donkey carts; you get the feeling that things haven’t changed in hundreds of years. But I’m not really feeling it. The heavy tropical air is depressing me. I don’t love the people as much as in other regions of Kenya; they seem more nervous and unfriendly. The Swahili they speak sounds completely different, faster and harsher. Little boys beat the donkeys cruelly. Men constantly approach me to sell me boat tours. Women, all with covered hair and some in burqas, give me stoney glances when I smile at them.

The Muslim prayers over the loudspeakers feel so familiar after 6 weeks in Egypt, but the singers don’t speak Arabic as a native language; they intone the prayers like a bland dirge, devoid of passion and energy. Without the rich, guttural tones of a native Arabic speaker, and the mystic longing that I felt from the singers in Jordan and Egypt, the prayers seem drab. This feels colonized, a culture imposed from without. Also, I don’t feel as safe as I had felt in Egypt and Jordan. It seems they have gotten some of the negative aspects of Islam without the safety and beauty. An American guy I meet who lives there says that due to the religious sexual repression, there is rampant rape of the children. Horrific.

After getting offered dozens of boat tours, I pick one guy with a good vibe who says there will be a tour tomorrow with a Canadian couple, so offers what seems like a slightly better price. He pressures me into trusting him with a deposit. Then he offers to take me on a walking tour. I tell him thank you but I’ve walked all over the town and seen and read about all the historical sites. He says he's offering it for free, his hospitality, to show me his town, and I’m pretty tired of walking, but agree out of politeness. We walk all over and see more beautiful doors and narrow alleyways. At the end he does ask for money and tell him I will think about it after I go to the ATM.

I look for some dinner. I had been imagining an interesting cuisine of blended cultures, but fail to find anything appealing. There are the Indian-style samosas you find all over East Africa, that they call sambusas. I do see a sign for live music happening that evening, and it turns out to be the highlight of my time on the coast. There’s an albino man singing and playing Indian tablas, and four other percussionists and singers. The music is infectious, driving, and fascinatingly unique, trancelike and rhythmic.

A visibly drunk middle aged British rocker asks me, “Do you like this music?” “I love it,” I say. He looks confused but then he pulls out an electric guitar and goes up and sets up next to the band without asking. His rock licks really don’t work. Then a bunch of Argentinians go up and start playing hippie drums with them.

The next day I take a dhow sailboat tour to the neighboring island. The Canadian couple never materializes, so it’s just me and the captain. I get angry when I realize that 20 dollars of the 30 I paid went to the tout and 2 dollars to the lunch the captain will make me, and only 8 to the captain who will do all the work. The captain is a cool guy, staunchly anti-marriage, which I appreciate, so we get along. This is fortunate as there is no wind at all so he and I are just kind of sitting there together. It’s extremely fortunate that it’s cloudy and even a little drizzly, otherwise the beating sun would be torture.

Finally a little breeze picks up and we make it to the island, with a deserted beach, some atmospheric homes and a few fancy hotels. There is almost no one here. I go for a long walk and many swims, though unfortunately the sun has come out and my sunburn is deepening. The captain starts to prepare lunch where very stinky fish are set out to dry in the sun. He introduces me to Gerald, a 60-something Brit who has been living on this island for 10 years. Gerald has a simple, plumbing-free thatch house and invites me to chill out on his porch and offers me juice.

He’s a funny guy and I enjoy his company and it’s definitely the most quiet and peaceful day I’ve had in a long while, on this paradise island. So I let Gerald talk me into letting the captain leave without me. But it’s clear we have some ideological differences when he says mentions a friend of his who has some “concubines”, and says that Dr Blasey-Ford was clearly lying to discredit Kavanaugh. He seems really attached to keeping me there and convincing me to stay in the area for weeks. I’m starting to feel a little uncomfortable and wonder how I will get back across the bay now. I see a motorboat leaving so I take the opportunity to break free of Gerald and get a ride, first taking his phone number. On the other side is the newer area of the main island, where most tourists stay to avoid the noise, crowds, and donkey shit of the historic town. That's where Gerald wants me to stay for a while, but it doesn’t interest me.

It's a 45-minute walk back to the old town; the sun is going down so it’s mercifully cool, or at least, less sweltering. When I get to the town, the tout who had taken me on the walking tour and sold me the boat tour finds me immediately and accosts me to pay him for the walking tour. It annoys me when someone offers me something as hospitality and then demands money, and I’m feeling even less charitable now that I know how little he paid the boat captain. I tell him no. I’m exhausted and sweaty and sunburned and I want a shower so bad, but he follows me home and berates me.

I don’t feel like dealing with this guy or with Gerald’s agenda for me, I just want out. I want out of the heavy atmosphere of the Kenya coast. I check the flights to Mombasa and to Nairobi and see that the following morning there’s a cheap one to Nairobi, after which it will get more expensive. It’s almost the same price to go all the way to Nairobi as it is to Mombasa. I want to see more of Mombasa but it doesn’t seem worth it. There is only one seat left on the flight so I hover in indecision a minute, then just book it. Then I decide to just fly to Uganda the same day, rather than take the long Uber ride into the center of Nairobi. I can always stop in Kenya on my way back to Egypt.

One thing I wanted to do in Mombasa was to see a movie showing in the theaters there. Subira is a Kenyan film shot in Lamu about a young woman whose dream is to swim in the ocean, based on a true story. It’s taboo for Muslim women of her culture to swim, even with all their clothes on. Imagine spending your entire life on an island that’s always horribly hot, forced to wear long heavy fabrics including a scarf that’s tucked into your shirt, and unable to ever go in the water that surrounds you. I’m sorry to miss the film as I’m sure it won’t be available online, but I’m glad it’s doing well in Kenya.

The bag I had bought in Ethiopia, the second one so far since stashing my good bag in Cairo, has ripped, so I need to get a new one before I fly the next morning. I cruise the shops and pick out the largest I can find, in the hopes that it will fit the Pharaonic inlaid coffee table I bought in Cairo. It’s cheap and I know it won’t last long, but it doesn’t have to. I book a flight from Nairobi to Entebbe, Uganda, with a few hours in between.

The next morning as I’m getting ready to go to the airport, Gerald comes by unannounced just as I was texting him to say I'm leaving. He’s very disappointed, and tries to kiss me, so I feel relieved to be leaving. He sees me off to the dock. The little dinghy bound for the airport has to wait until it’s dangerously over-full before embarking. The flight is short and it’s great to be in Nairobi again even just at the airport for a few hours, to enjoy the slightly cooler air, the vibe of the people, and some good coffee. I land in Uganda at sunset and it takes me less than 5 minutes to accomplish the transition: a Visa on arrival, my bag through customs, and some Uganda shillings from the ATM. This is the fastest country change I have ever had.

Next: Uganda