My half-price ticket requires me to stay a couple of days longer than the rest of the team. I head down to Mombasa on a cheap flight. This may well be my final visit to Kenya and last chance to scope out this place I romanticized when a child. As a girl, my mum’s family used to holiday down here on the coast, courtesy of a kind businessman who had a soft spot for penniless missionaries. She spoke of those holidays regularly and with great fondness.
According to my uncle’s memoirs, they stayed at Bamburi Beach, about 20 miles north of Mombasa town. There are resorts all up and down the coast, but they are pricey and beyond me. Anyway, I tell myself, I want to get a feel for Mombasa proper. I will be staying on the island, which sounds exotic but then someone also once named their daughter Chlamydia because they thought it sounded so pretty.
Shuttle driver John is waiting for me at the airport holding a sign with my name on it. It is even spelt correctly, which is most gratifying since the last thing with my name on it was my cubicle/bed in Turkana: Graham Billikie. To be fair, that is kind of how Kenyans pronounce my last name so I guess they just spelt it out half way phonetically.
We head into town at breakneck speed until we hit major road construction, but the pot holes and pedestrians, roundabouts and tuk tuks (three-wheeled motorcycle “cars”) do little to dampen John’s enthusiasm at being behind the wheel. My guess is he calculates his tip on how many pedestrians he almost hits but doesn’t put in hospital. But I just smile and we continue our conversation about Mombasa. On my three trips to Kenya, I’ve learned that Kenyans have their own rules of the road, which they all seem to understand amidst the chaos. And if they don’t, a honk on the horn reminds them and they move out of the way at the last minute.
My hotel is smack in the center of things. It is very plain and the shower is cold and the air conditioning hot. But it is mainly clean, has very friendly staff (including a couple of security guards who wand everyone who comes in), and the big selling point is it has a free breakfast. There’s nothing much on the small TV except static and very melodramatic Indian soap operas with the same theme (Indian man trying to convince Indian woman to marry him. Variation on theme: Indian parents trying to convince daughter this arranged marriage is a good thing). So, after a cold shower in the morning, I head down for beef sausages, scrambled eggs and baked beans—the breakfast of champions, or diabetics at least.
Back in my room, I am quickly sweating. Mombasa is very humid. I think about being the loud American (now that I am a proud dual passport holder) and politely asking for another room, but I decide not to sweat it by, um, sweating it. I put a few things in my sling and head out to experience Mombasa. Though I am the only white guy for miles (I only saw one other white guy at a distance in two days—two white guys if you include the albino Kenyan who walked past me), people are very friendly and many of them greet me. Later, on the way to the airport, my driver Paul (a Jehovah’s Witness, but that didn’t affect his driving) will tell me that foreigners are slowly coming back. They stayed away after a terrorist attack or three gave parts of Kenya a bad name.
After scores of Tuk Tuk drivers have honked at the white guy with no tan to see if I want a ride with them, I arrive half an hour later at Fort Jesus. This is a 400-year-old Portuguese fort built in the shape of Jesus on the cross, and just loaded with history. As I get close to the entrance, an elderly gentleman with tobacco-stained teeth sidles up to me and asks where I’m from. I don’t do a good Russian accent, so I tell him New Zealand, but living in America. “Ah, Auckland, New Zealand,” he says. “You are a kiwi.” This guy is good. I read about him, or his cousins, in a few guidebooks. His name is Omar, a Moslem. Long story short, he guides me through the Fort and Old Mombasa for the next 3 hours. It is a pleasure to be supporting the local economy, and he certainly earns the 1200 shillings ($12) I finally part with (many here make 1000 shillings [$10] in a whole day).
Old Mombasa is a fascinating place, predominantly Moslem. We walk past the high-pitched voices of boys reciting the Koran in a madrassah (Islamic school). Women in black burkas and hijabs ignore or furtively glance at me from narrow slits. Some have elaborate tatoos on their hands, the only flesh that can be seen. “Don’t come here on your own,” Omar tells me. “Bag snatchers.” Around the fish market, men are lounging—perhaps waiting for work. Or me. Or just lounging. Though I am clearly “other,” I don’t feel unsafe. Even here, a number of people welcome me: “Jambo!” (“hello!”). “Karibu!” (“welcome!”).
After my tour, I head back to the fort and wander along the rocks at its base. One guy who has been swimming and who is sunning himself smiles at me and makes swimming motions, as if giving a friendly dare for me to go in. I smile back and shake my head. My Columbia pants would dry soon enough, but I’m a bit nervous about my passport, wallet and camera. And then there’s my hat which prompted one person to greet me, “Hello Texas Ranger.” It is an “Aussie” branded hat, but made in New Zealand. Perhaps this one wonder is a portent that world peace is possible after all.
Sadly, there are a lot of plastic bottles that have washed up or been discarded in this otherwise picturesque spot. But I find a small patch of clear sand in the shade of a half-cave, and sit and admire the view of the water. After a while, a guy wanders down the rocks to the shallows, takes everything off (I mean everything), sits down, and proceeds to wash himself and his clothes in the briny water. As I have done so often on this trip, I thank God for how blessed I am to have not just clean water, but a washing machine, and I marvel at how resourceful so many are who have so little.