The wind has been turned off like a tap. For the last three days its been blowing non-stop, gale force. It has been preemptively ending card games, slamming doors and blowing bottles off tables. Rachel and I initially moved or mattress out to the roof-top terrace because the bedroom was so stiflingly hot. We suspend a mosquito net from the backs of four chairs and sleep out under the stars. The first night of the wind we woke in the pitch black shivering; a foreign enough sensation that we relished the goosebumps. But when we wake up this morning in the dark at five it’s still enough that we can hear the ocean lapping at the hulls of the dhows in the harbor. As we pick up our sheets and mattress under the slowly dimming stars we hear the first call to prayer of the day, the Arabic echoing clearly through the already warm morning air.
Downstairs in our rented apartment Charles is already awake, finishing his packing. Normally at this time of the year this guest house is fully booked. There are four two-person rooms on the second floor that share a small common room. The three-person apartment we have paid for on the third and a pair of stepped rooftop terraces and another bedroom for two on top of the house. There are two full time house boys and a chef constantly on duty. Normally our apartment would rent for $75 to $200 a day. We are paying 2000 shillings each per night, or the equivalent of about $8 a person. Normally holding 13-15 guests, the house now contains as many guests as staff. And we aren’t even needy guests, preferring to wash our own clothes in borrowed basins and shop for and cook our own meals in the fully equipped kitchen. Such is the state of Kenyan tourism in the wake of the election troubles.
We leave a fair sized tip as well as an odd collection of freebies: discarded weight from over-heavy packs. My Chacos were already on their last legs and I’ve ordered a new pair that should have arrived at home in the states by now. They are heavy and I’m glad to leave them on the floor by the bed. There’s also Charles’ tent. He’s reached that inevitable plateau where, trip or no trip, he just needs to go home. We will be parting ways after Mombasa and so the Kenyan bought tent that he was going to use in the parks in Rwanda is also being dropped. This is probably in his best interest considering that its constructed of a thick tarp like plastic that make it better suited to the humane suffocation of an aged and beloved pet than anything else. We also leave a Frisbee and hacky sack. A bottle of shaving cream. A half-finished jar of peanut butter. Ironically, every one of these objects are ones that most of the Kenyans I have met have only a passing familiarity with. Mwanza (our chef), holding out my sleeping bag and the Frisbee, asked me to explain just how you pitch a tent. We try to sneak off in the dark but they awake. Goodbyes and thank yous are breathily whispered through windows as we pass the ground floor room where they sleep.
The descending tide has left the sand uncharacteristically firm. Any coolness remaining in the pre-dawn air is soon overwhelmed by the exertion of schlepping our packs and the remaining tent down the beach. Fishing boats are already coming in with a morning catch. They heft the slick and shiny flesh on their shoulders as we pass. It’s three kilometers to Lamu. We gradually join a growing parade of travelers heading to the early ferry back to the mainland. Even a month ago, ferries ran from Lamu three times a day. With the decline in Western visters, its now down to just this one. If you want to leave without hiring a private boat you need to be in the main harbor by 7a.
We pack into a motarized dhow, the luggage piled in the bow twice as high as the gunnels. A sign says the max capacity is 100. In a space roughly the size of two station wagons end to end, there are roughly 70 people. There’s already no standing room remaining. They sit on the side rails, stand on the stern and the engine housing, they crouch in the bottom of the boat, sitting on carry-alls and duffels. I can’t see where the other 30 people would sit. Perhaps they cling gamely to the underside of the hull like barnacles. Climbing out is a similarly pushy and unorganized process to climbing in. The stone docks we climb are worn by wind and weather, the steps collapsing into one another as though the concrete had melted in the sun and run down towards the water in a river.
Sitting in the front of the bus, I find that an enterprising traveler has already commandeered much of my leg space with a 20 liter jerri-can and a cardboard box tied with string. The box, I will eventually learn, contains a rooster owned by the woman sitting behind me. Over the course of the seven hour trip she will repeatedly hand me corn to feed the chicken and periodically encourage me to kick the box until he audibly responds. Undoubtedly he is a fighting cock and needs to be kept angry. The radio on the bus is mercifully broken and aside from the armed guards sitting by the door – in the case of bush bandits – the most notable thing about the bus ride is just how unnotable it is. Seven hours squeezed between two other people, sweating in the equatorial heat, choking on dust from the road, a chicken in a box periodically interrupting my fevered dozing with an angry crow is astonishingly and casually normal. I never even take out my book.
In Mombasa it’s a short walk to the Qwale guesthouse. We stay in a triple. The florescent light won’t stop flickering and it’s the one room shower/sink/toilet combo again. The economy of space makes multi-tasking a breeze: you can spit toothpaste in the sink, pee in the toilet and stand under the shower at the same time. Apparently having rusted out over the course of its life, the showerhead has a plastic bag with holes poked in it stretched tightly across its underside. At the base of each bed is a topsheet, a towel and a small wad of toilet paper. Any paper left in the bathroom would be soaked.
We head down to the Likoni Ferry in search of a park where Somali immigrants gather in the afternoons to chew miraa, drink tea and scream at soccer matches in their native language. We find eventually a quieter spot than that outside a small duka. Our neighbor at the next table is the perfect kind of stranger. Helpful, coherent and totally uninterested in anything we are doing. He graciously answers a few questions and then goes back to his own chewing.
Miraa is a mild stimulant whose effect is augmented considerably by other substances. The scariest drunks here, in my experience, are those who stagger toward you and reveal white teeth covered in the green mulch of chewed miraa. It comes in small bundles – handfuls – of maybe 100 stems. Red/brown at the stiffer end up to green at the frayed remains of the leaves at the other. You pick off the leaves and chew with your back teeth from the softer green end towards the harder red one. When the pulp stops sliding easily, you switch to front teeth: peeling the pulp off the hard stem. It has a bitter, cotton-mouthing taste that fades as your gums and tongue go tingly or numb.
In my experience, its not a particularly potent or interesting amphetamine. The high is low-key and it grows slowly. It also requires an intensive investment of time and effort to extract a fairly minor payoff. However, the same attributes that would make it ill-fitted for Williamsburg Hipsters jauting about the East Village in the wee hours of a Sunday morning make sitting in the park for an afternoon chewing it a remarkably pleasant experience. It passes the time and leaves focus for other things, like playing cards, but you don’t even have to pay attention.
As the sun sets, we catch a matatu back to the center of town. The tout is at that pleasantly exhausted part of the day where he wakes only enough to take our money and shut the door before laying his head back against the window. We walk to get a late dinner of schwarma sandwiches at a café a few blocks from the hotel. Even close to 11p the streets of Mombasa feel safe and welcoming. A light breeze has cut the heat of the day and the sidewalks are full of families walking together in and out of the street lights. It is a far cry from the dim and frightening grime of Nairobi at this time of night.
On the way we pass a darkened city park where an LCD projector has been set up to show the latest game of the Africa’s Cup being played in Accra, Ghana. Men and women and children lounge, stretched out, on the grass, crouched in trees and seated on utility boxes and dry empty fountains as they watch. We sit outside on the sidewalk patio and hear the muffled cheers and gasps of the crowd as we eat.