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Published: July 17th 2008
The airport taxi drops us just as the ramp falls on the Likoni Ferry, releasing a flood of passengers streaming up the landing in their hundreds, reminiscent of some timeless migratory scene. Only vehicles pay for the short crossing that links the island city of Mombasa to the mainland south, which makes monitoring the exact passenger intake a tough call, I ponder, as we join the herd in replenishing the ferry, almost as swiftly as those departed.
We find a lofty vantage point up on top deck and set down our bags. A boy of around ten engages us, asking where we’re from and where we’re going…We’re headed 35kms down the coast for Tiwi Beach, which in African distance is a short hop, yet still involves a matatu, a taxi and possibly some hitching or a trek. Obviously more observant than us, he candidly suggests we might like to enquire with the driver of the green Toyota Hiace with ‘Tiwi Beach Resort’ emblazoned on the side! I clamber down the stairs, squeezing my way through tightly packed passengers just in time to proposition the driver as engines begin to rev and exhaust fumes fill the air, heralding our imminent arrival.
He seems open to negotiation, and agrees to meet us a few hundred metres from the ferry landing, just as the crush forces his departure, funneling us too towards the exit. We surge off the opposite side of the double ended ferry, past illimitable new arrivals, taxi drivers and hawkers trying to pick off potential customers in the squall. Four years ago I crossed this very same harbour after having travelled ten months overland from India. I’ve been literally pining to get back to Africa ever since. This morning we’d arrived via a ten-hour charter flight from Frankfurt. It hadn’t changed a bit…Had I?
We locate our man, and a short negotiation ensues, ending with that ultimate in dodgy non-committals “How much?” “As you like…” To be continued it is then… We pile the bags onboard then I climb in besides the driver with Jennifer in the back. Taxis, cars and buses jostle to join the single lane of stationary freight heading south. The morning temperature has already begun to climb and our lack of progress confounds this; however it does give us time to peruse the vendor’s offerings from the comfort of our seats, before opting for
a couple of cooling refreshments straight from the ice bucket. The pedestrian traffic is making more headway than us, but we are on our way; the omens are good.
A man with glazed eyes comes up to chitchat; his malevolent intent precedes him, as both of our senses twitch with uneasiness. The driver explains away his behavior as someone who’s consumed too much low grade dope, leading us to brush off our misjudged concern as a symptom of our new arrival. Just then a commotion has me and the driver looking back to witness our rogue wiping off his face and gesturing apologetically as if he’d just handled the ball inside the penalty area and was attempting to avoid the inevitable red card.
We immediately turned to Jennifer, hand still trembling. Perhaps the scoundrel’s eye lingering too long on one of the bags had heightened her intuition; for amidst the driver’s explanations a noise that didn’t quite fit the scene snapped her back to attention as the shady character had flung the window open and grabbed a day pack. Jennifer yanked it back sharply, instinctively throwing out her right hand in an offensive gesture, sobering our thief-to
be in his attempts with a shot of shockingly cold water to the face.
The offender continued to stand just a couple meters away as if nothing had happened as Jennifer recounted her ordeal. The driver seemed to think it was nothing to get too excited about, and I wondered on closer examination how far the little weasel would’ve managed to get carrying an 8kg bag in his condition? Still I could appreciate why he might have fancied his chances, after staking out a couple of newly arrived pink Mzungus, smiling cheesily back at him from their personal resort vehicle, gridlocked in the slums.
Having spent most of the past half year in areas relatively free of petty crime, we took this experience as a positive tonic; propelling us into a heightened state of vigilance from day one.
After a 10 hour bus ride, the flight, and our sweaty journey to the coast, we had planned on treating ourselves to a nice cottage on Tiwi Beach. However, we hadn’t anticipated the fourfold increase in prices since my last jaunt down this coast, and with the manager stubbornly refusing to negotiate a reasonable price for the mediocre rooms
on offer. We decided to wield sticks and predatory facades in an attempt to wrestle some land away from the colony of pick-pocketing monkeys on site, so we could set up tent a few meters from the blindingly white sand. We didn’t have four walls, but we had location, location, location.
We spent a couple days relaxing in the surf and acclimatizing to the equatorial heat and touristic Kenya. Though Tiwi Beach markets itself as a backpacker option amidst the playground of European package tourists, we were still hostage to fantasyland prices for all meals in the hotel’s restaurant, and highly inflated raw materials from the obligatory fruit and fish men who frequent such haunts in order to give the low-budget tourist respite from restaurant fare and prices.
Walking south towards Diani Beach, the standard of resorts begins to climb, as well as the casual beach stroller’s perceived wealth. At first it felt nostalgic to be approached and pitched by the well honed resident beach boys, allowing me to rebuild tolerance for such unsolicited company, and brush up on my banter. Yet after the umpteenth attempt to sell you a boat trip and various trinkets you need to
retreat before your sense of humour deserts you. After all, this for them is a full-time occupation; I’m just a part-time tourist.
I am always intrigued at the price discrimination in these little enclaves, as it must require total commitment on the part of the locals to be able to maintain the collusive myth these highly inflated prices are not, indeed inflated at all. An excellent example was the camel driver charging fifty Euros for a short jaunt up and down the beach, made all the more mystifying when he proudly produced a German lady who’d paid just that the very same morning. She proceeded in telling me it was worth every cent; and the fact she claimed to be an NGO living and working in Kenya rendered me gormless. But then I suppose in a captive market the idea of perfect competition is just a pipe dream.
In order to obtain the much cheaper transit visa, we had told a little white lie at the airport, namely that we were headed straight for The Tanzanian border when in fact we were headed for the much more distant Ugandan. This now left us with just a few days
to transverse the entire country and still take in that icon of Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro. We decided to simply travel to the nearest nondescript town for our view of the mountain, and the day we left we were able hit the road early, with a lift back to Mombasa with our new buddies the German NGO’s.
By late afternoon we were enjoying our first views of rural Kenya, as we left the main roads and made a beeline through Tsavo National Park. Despite travelling the length of Africa previously I had never been on ‘Safari’, and so as the sun cast its golden glow on the coarse grass skirting our bumpy path, our eyes darted with excitement between the acacia trees from one creature to another, sometimes helped in our hunt by fellow passengers who themselves seemed to give no more regard to the zebras, elephants, and antelope than they did to the ubiquitous red dust that had now coated everything and everyone inside the bus.
The rabid inflation of the coast hadn’t really reached the dusty border town of Taveta allowing us to book into a charming hotel for a very refreshing price. We immediately headed for
the in-house restaurant where the waiter startled at our voracious appetites. Yet despite ordering one of everything on the menu, we still managed to pay less than we had for one spartan ‘backpacker’ meal on the coast. Then with just enough sunlight left before the arrival of our meal the waiter hurried us up onto the rooftop for our first view of the distant Kilimanjaro.
As the sun rose to the sound of our alarm clock we hastily packed our bags and rushed through a town barely stirred into life. Despite our hotel owner’s insistence we leave early, we seemed to be the only passengers in waiting, and were thus able to ponder for quite some time what would be our best seating options in this modified truck-come-bus. As people began hoisting stuff onto the roof, judging by the pile still to be loaded, and the lack of passengers, we assumed we’d have more than enough time to scavenge breakfast amongst the handful of stalls opening up at this hour.
With the door finally squeezed shut on the last passenger, it was still quite possible that there was more weight on the roof than inside the vehicle. Every
time the driver opted for the shoulder of the road in order to avoid a particularly deep rut, we listed precariously. Stopping it seemed, for every man and his goat, we cursed every departure and welcomed each new arrival in the battle to bring down our collective centre of gravity from treacherous to merely dangerous.
The early morning light gave us a clear and picturesque view of a snow-capped, purple Kilimanjaro rising up from the plains of sunflowers outside the window. Heading straight through the Maasai heartland, a constant flux of richly decorated passengers hopped on the bus, replacing the generic town inhabitants, in their western garb. For me the awe of Africa is not solely about the exotic animals we learn about in kindergarten, but moments as this; the Masaai completely indifferent to our presence, boarding the bus dressed in red shawls, exuding a regal air, their confidence manifest in their posture and booming voices. The intricacies and significances of their jewelry, piercings and dress doubtless symbolizing age, sex, and place inspire me immeasurably more than the number of horns on a rhino or the taxonomy of a zebra.
Another aspect of Africa which has to be
experienced firsthand is the anarchic interpretations of time and distance. If you leave for work at 8.55am, drive 37kms at a speed of 70km/h and stop 5 minutes for petrol, what time will you get to work? Give a man a calculator and he’ll hazard a guess at an answer. However, stopping at a random village deep in Masaai country and asking the first person who catches your eye what time you’ll arrive in Oloitokitok is an entirely different proposition.
Firstly the distance is unknown; the speed travelled varies drastically according to the condition of the road (ranging from diabolical to plain old bumpy). The average probability of stops varies from 1 to 1000 to pick up/drop off passengers and their luggage, with each stop taking anything from 3 seconds to 30 minutes. Factor in the day of the week for market days/festivals, weddings and not forgetting the current weather conditions, punctures, gear box failures and radiator leakages. Top this all off with the fact the poor guy you’ve put on the spot has never been there or yet more relevant to his challenge; he’s never owned a timepiece! And perhaps we should forgive him his inaccuracy?
is a reason there is no mention of this formula in Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica; and that is because it goes way beyond the limits of human knowledge. Yet, like restless little children in the back of the car, we continue to ask that age old conundrum “Are we there yet?”
We felt justified in asking that very question, however, when the bus came to another halt and passengers began vacating en masse. As the conductor attempted to shoo us off we looked out the window at the junction of two dusty roads, shrugged our shoulders, and exited the bus. Very few tourists make it out here simply because it’s a generic Kenyan town far off the main track, no safari companies operate from here and people wanting to climb Kilimanjaro have to do so from the Tanzanian side. But walk a couple of minutes outside the centre of town and you have arguably one of the best views in Africa—all to yourself.
To make the arduous journey more worthwhile we’d planned our arrival to coincide with the weekly Masaai market, and spent a leisurely afternoon exploring and conversing with the curious locals who seemed as intrigued
oloitokitok (From Tanzania)
at our presence as we at theirs. However, walking around the local market it appeared there were two versions of the same people there that day. Both wore colorfully dressed in Masaai clothing, yet one set was cheerful and approachable, whilst the other was prickly and hostile. We were soon informed that the latter were from just over the border in Tanzanian and had bussed it in for the market, whilst the former were local Masaai.
Judging by their reactions, the Tanzanian Masaai harbored a deep resentment towards us, which could only be explained by their interactions with the mass of tourists just over the other side of the mountain. One could easily surmise that these traits are only manifest in their dealings with foreigners, yet it left me to wonder whether their prejudice could permeate their personalities on a more general level.
We woke up the following morning before dawn, and positioned ourselves on the edge of town to watch Kilimanjaro’s spectacular unveiling, as tiny tots plodded by on their way to school. Before rushing to nab some seats on the daily bus to Nairobi, where I was able to squeeze into the back seat in the
corner wedged up against the window. Despite my cramped quarters, I felt perfectly content with our seating arrangements, as Jen and our little one (now all of 3 inches long) have bagged a seat up in the cab with the driver, for what promised to be a butt-breaking journey through the bush to Nairobi.
After our incident in Mombasa we didn’t need to be prompted to caution in Nairobbery of all places. And after a brief and guarded change of transport we were on our way north, back on Kenya’s main artery. We stopped in Nakuru, famed for its flamingos, a destination we plan to visit on our return trip. But for now it’s just a quick dinner and bed before the final push to the Ugandan border, which we hoped to reach before our transit visas expire the following day.
After a failed attempt at buying tickets the night before, we taxied to the coach station on the outskirts of town, with plenty of time to spare to try and secure some seats on the Nairobi/Tororo bus. Whilst waiting we attempted to piece together a well-rounded breakfast from the snack stands, with our last Kenyan shillings, by
deciding to order one of every hot item on the menu. This amounted to chips, bhajia (spiced fried potatoes), dhal something or other (Also for some reason, turned out to be fried potato balls), and samosas, stuffed with choice of the day, potato.
We easily bagged a pair of seats on the border bus, which was reassuringly empty and mainly populated by North American voluntourists. We wound our way through the mountains towards Eldoret where the arid landscape was replaced by cows grazing in the meadows. As the elevation rose, so too, it seemed, did our heartburn, and we were all too ready for our lunch stop to get a proper meal down us, as the bus pulled to halt.
When the waitress came over to take our order in the menu-less diner, we inquired what was on offer. “Chicken and chips” was the reply. We both giggled and I raised a hand “No, no chips please!” Though she proceeded to rattle off the selections as if she hadn’t registered our request; “… we have beef and chips, mutton and chips, fish and chips…” ”Sorry, we don’t want ANY CHIPS!” Stopping midsentence, she broke out of her patter,
on their way to school. Oloitokitok
straightened up and looked us both square in the face with a confused expression “Do you KNOW what chips are?” My rather defensively worded description of the great British chip was good enough to earn us a reprieve, and we were honored with the rice option.
Just before we arrived at the Ugandan border the bus wound to a halt and let off the dozen or so teenage voluntourists. As we pulled away, I witnessed a crowd of Kenyan boys gathered around them, and yet more running frantically over to join the party. The reason for this enthusiastic greeting it materialized was the distribution of candy by the bucket load. A practice, I understand, that’s even frowned upon at Mardi Gras these days. Things like that used to really rile me…maybe I haven’t changed at all?
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